San Diegans love the blues. Even more, they love Gary Clark Jr. On September 27, the Austin, Texas native performed a two-hour set before a sold-out crowd at the San Diego House of Blues. After an opening set by fellow Austin musician Max Frost and his band, the packed venue was ready for Clark when he stepped up to the microphone and launched into a rigorous performance of “Ain’t Messin’ Round.” The House echoed with roars from the crowd as dense drumbeats shook the speakers and vibrated the floor. “We love you, Gary!” shouted one fan over and over again as the set progressed, egging Clark on before the start of each song. Through two hours of music that included a four-track encore and too many guitar solos to count, the audience cheered for Clark endlessly, ecstatic to be present at one of the first stops on Clark’s fall 2013 tour.
Clark doesn’t say much while he’s onstage – he smiles at the audience and never lets a lyric go unsung, but for the most part, he lets his guitar do the talking. The 29-year-old musician has been playing for 17 years, and while Clark’s experience shows, his talent was discovered early on. At 15, Clark began performing at Antone’s, an Austin club owned by the same man who gave Stevie Ray Vaughan a leg up in Austin’s blues scene nearly four decades ago. It was Eric Clapton, however, who pushed Clark onto the national stage in 2010 with an offer to play at the annual Crossroads Guitar Festival. Shortly after, Clark signed with Warner Bros. Records, a deal that resulted in the 2012 release of his major label debut Blak and Blu.
After opening with “Ain’t Messin’ Round,” Clark performed several other songs from Blak and Blu, including the fan-favorite “Numb” and his remarkable Jimi Hendrix and Little Johnny Taylor medley “Third Stone from the Sun / If You Love Me Like You Say.” Although the album reveals his resistance toward settling into just genre through its wide sampling, Clark’s San Diego show reveled in the blues, and neither he nor his audience seemed to mind. The early “Travis County” got the crowd dancing and singing along right from the start, a trend that continued through the night. Most evident of all was the crowd’s genuine familiarity with the music: fans relished Clark’s masterful solos and welcomed each new song with cries of excitement, all while Clark wandered behind the microphone stand and shot occasional grins into the audience.
In a live setting, it becomes apparent that the recorded tracks on Blak and Blu are not accurate representations of what Clark envisions for his work onstage. Clark enjoys jamming for an audience, turning what might have begun as a four-minute song into a 10-minute musical experience. Even after Clark’s set concluded at the House of Blues, his fans were not ready for him to leave. As it turned out, neither was Clark. Returning to the stage for a four-song encore, Clark spent nearly 30 minutes more onstage, shredding away on his guitar as if putting the instrument down was unfathomable.
Clark has spent the past three years performing at some of the biggest music festivals in the U.S. and around the world. He has played alongside Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, Buddy Guy and countless others who all seem to agree that Clark has the potential to become the next big name in blues. Sure enough, Clark has already earned more critical recognition than most career blues artists enjoy, even if he is still considered new on the scene. Whatever his future holds, one thing is for sure: standing onstage with colored lights sweeping the floor and an electric guitar strapped across his chest, Gary Clark Jr. looked and sounded every bit the rising legend that others believe he is.
Review by Meghan Roos