When was the last time a young blues guitarist really blew your mind? Sure, there's the Allman Brothers' Derek Trucks, who comes at the form in a jam-band context. Jack White filters the blues through garage rock and punk; the Black Keys' Dan Auerbach through those and other pop styles; Ben Harper takes more of a folky singer-songwriter tack. But a genuine 21st-century bluesman, raised on the form in all its roughneck roadhouse glory but marked by the present day? That's been as hard to find as a 21st-century clockmaker.
No longer. The first thing you hear on Gary Clark Jr.'s four-song calling-card EP is a nasty, fat-assed electric-guitar tone, which the 27-year-old honed as a Texas teen playing clubs like Antone's, Austin's blues church. On the title track, Clark stretches that tone like taffy, swings it like a bullwhip, spits it out in bursts of distortion. It's the blues, no doubt: Clark sings, "Ended up with the bottle/Taking shots, waiting on tomorrow/Trying to fill up what's hollow," over a snarling groove, confessing his intoxication with "bright lights, big city" like Jimmy Reed and Mick Jagger did before him. But the music is noise-soaked, psychedelic and shape-shifting, the guitar as much Kurt Cobain as Buddy Guy and Albert Collins, the drums smacking and slipping with hip-hop break-beat muscle.
Clark has been a local treasure for years; his breakout moment was at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Festival last year, where he played alongside Clapton and Sheryl Crow. Now, with a major-label deal and a kickass rhythm section behind him, he's fixing to blast himself out of the barrooms and onto bigger stages.
Bright Lights is a good start. "Don't Owe You a Thang" is a shit-hot boogie that club DJs need to hear—you can imagine it dropped into a house mix and all hell breaking loose. "When My Train Pulls In" is an eight-minute solo showpiece with echoes of Jimi Hendrix's "Castles Made of Sand." But the biggest surprise is when Clark purrs "Things Are Changing." An R&B slow jam with gentle, jazzy guitar, it sounds like John Legend making ladies swoon at the local coffee shop. Suddenly you can envision him duetting with Adele, swapping tunes with Jack Johnson or singing hooks for Nas.
The most exciting thing about Clark is that he could steer his career in any direction—or perhaps every direction: This is a guy who loves Nirvana, Tupac, Stevie Wonder and the Ramones, along with John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf. His live gigs prove he's got more great tunes up his sleeve: Check out gems like "If You Love Me Like You Say," a Collins tune that Clark periodically splinters into the kind of multiguitar blues abstractions Miles Davis explored with his Seventies electric bands. The challenge for Clark will be finding a road map. All four songs here are about standing on the brink of change, knowing it's coming, tasting it. As Clark declares on "Bright Lights," without an iota of doubt, "You gonna know my name by the end of the night." Can't wait for the album.
Listen to Gary Clark Jr.'s "Bright Lights":