Gary Clark Jr. finds the soul of Austin at the Paramount Theatre's 107th-anniversary gala
Lots of eyes were on downtown Austin on Saturday morning and afternoon. Abortion-rights activists gathered at the Capitol as part of a coordinated nationwide protest, while a twice-impeached former president tried to gin up support among his followers at the Austin Convention Center. It felt a bit like a battle for the soul of Austin — but come sundown, the city's inner light shone brightly from the stage of the Paramount Theatre, where hometown guitar star Gary Clark Jr. held court at the venue's 107th-anniversary gala.
The artist and concert hall are a good match for each other. Few buildings in Austin have more history than the Paramount, which has been providing the community with movies, music, comedy and other entertainment since 1915. Clark, 38, came along a lot more recently, but the native Austinite's winning mix of rock, blues, funk, soul and more grew directly from the live music scene that has been this city's calling card for decades.
Clark himself acknowledged the depth of the relationship, telling the crowd that he used to go to the Paramount on field trips in his grade-school days, and later opened for legendary rock & roll pioneer Chuck Berry at the theater. Now, he's raising his own family here; he mentioned early on that he missed soundcheck because "my boy was playing Little League baseball playoffs today. They're a bunch of losers, but it's fun."
Clark clearly feels at home on the Paramount stage. His performance was as loose and at-ease as I've ever ever seen him, as he breezed through a 70-minute set with a four-piece backing band of keyboardist Jon Deas, drummer JJ Johnson, bassist Elijah Ford and guitarist King Zapata.
After opening with "Bright Lights" from his 2012 breakthrough album "Black and Blu," Clark pulled songs from several of his albums, frequently pushing them into extended jams. He drew cheers when he strolled to the edge of the stage for a solo on the deeply bluesy "My Baby's Gone," while he and Deas reveled in an intense guitar-and-keys duel on "Our Love" from 2015's "The Story of Sonny Boy Slim."
More Austin music reviews:From a sold-out Waterloo Park to a parking garage roof, Austin angsts with Olivia Rodrigo
Clark left out the Grammy-winning title track from 2019's "This Land," but he dug deeper into the album for the falsetto showcase of "Feed the Babies" and the atmospheric, anthemic "What About Us." He joked that he wrote the latter song — which included the lyric "You can call it what you want but the young blood's taking over" — when "I found my very first gray hair in my beard."
Clark reached back to the beginning of his career for the finale, a 10-minute version of "When My Train Pulls In." The song was on Clark's teenage debut album, "Worry No More," before being redone for "Black and Blu." On this night, he invited another young talent, Glenn Peterson of local band the Peterson Brothers, to take it home with some impressive guitar chops down the stretch. Clark looked on with a big smile, basking in the glory of a big night at home.
"Paramount and Austin, Texas, I appreciate you," he said as he left the stage.
Clark's performance followed live and silent auctions that raised several hundreds of thousands of dollars for the venue's operating budget. Dinner and dancing in tents on a blocked-off stretch of Congress Avenue followed for patrons who paid a hefty ticket price to attend the gala. The event also included early sets inside (from the Peterson Brothers) and outside, where attendees enjoyed cocktails while the rootsy duo of Eve Monsees & Mike Buck performed on the sidewalk under the Paramount's iconic marquee.