If you are fond of rock ‘n roll or the blues, you’ve undoubtedly heard of Gary Clark Jr., a man who has been at the forefront of the modern electric blues movement for the past decade. From scintillating live performances to Grammy awards, numerous facets of Clark’s career have garnered acclaim in their own right. But to begin, we’ll look at Clark’s origins in Austin, Texas.
Clark took up guitar when he was twelve years old and began performing at venues soon afterwards. Throughout his teenage years and early twenties, Clark performed at blues clubs in Austin and began to establish himself as a fixture of the city’s blues scene. It wasn’t until 2010, when he was invited to perform at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival, that he found his first major breakthrough. A video from Clark’s performance at Clapton’s festival drew the attention of Warner Bros., and soon afterwards, Clark soon inked his first major label deal.
Gary Clark Jr. performing at Crossroads Guitar Festival 2010
In the following year, Clark released his Bright Lights EP (2011) followed by his first album with Warner, Blak and Blu (2012). But beyond his personal projects, Clark found time to collaborate with established artists outside the blues realm: artists in the R&B, rock, and pop sphere. Clark was originally invited to contribute his guitar handiwork to an Alicia Keys cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” at a charity benefit concert in New York, in 2011, and upon impressing Alicia Keys, he was invited to collaborate on her album Girl On Fire. Ultimately, Clark laid down the guitar sections on the song, “Fire We Make.”
Clark’s 2012 major-label debut album, Blak and Blu, peaked at #6 on the Billboard record charts, and earned him two Grammy nominations in 2014—one for Best Rock Song with “Ain’t Messin Round,” and another for best traditional R&B Performance with “Please Come Home,” which he in fact won.
Returning to live performances, Clark reached a career high in 2012 when he was invited to play a song with the Rolling Stones at their Barclay’s Center concert dates as part of the band’s 50th anniversary tour. Clark played Don Nix’s “Going Down” and was given his own solo.
In 2013, Clark expanded his list of impressive stage appearances, opening for Eric Clapton in Birmingham, England, and appearing as a guest performer for the Rolling Stones in Boston that spring. Moreover, Clark took the stage with the Foo Fighters and Jimmy Vaughan in 2014 and performed with Earth Wind and Fire at the NBA All-Star Game Halftime Show. During this period, Clark toured independently and released a live album, Gary Clark Jr. Live (2014) with some decent blues cuts such as “Catfish Blues” and “Travis County,” both solid examples of his noise-heavy, guitar driven sound. However, my favorite song on the album would have to be “When My Train Pulls In,” which features a particularly cheeky guitar performance from Clark. Here’s a particularly good performance of the song at Glastonbury Festival in 2016:
Over the years, Clark has also found considerable success collaborating with other artists, especially those outside the blues realm. In 2014, Clark collaborated with the Foo Fighters on the song “What Did I Do? / God Is My Witness” for the Foo Fighters album SonicHighways. Clark also contributed guitar on a song called “"The Night Me and Your Mama Met" on Childish Gambino’s 2016 album, "Awaken, My Love!" What’s more, he’s collaborated with hip/hop artist Tech N9ne, Tom Morello, and ZZ Ward, and had songs featured in major motion pictures such as Cars 3 and most recently, Justice League. Gary Clark Jr.’s cover of the Beatles “Come Together” features a nice gritty bass line and screaming guitar lead, and may be his most famous cut to date.
In the past two years, Gary Clark Jr.’s projects have moved in a different direction. In February of 2019, Clark released the blues album, This Land, a collection of songs with a political edge that speaks to his personal experiences as a black man growing up in Texas and living in America. The album debuted at number six on the Billboard album charts and received a positive critical reception. The breakout song on the album is the title track, “This Land,” a song that feels reminiscent of Beyoncé’s “Formation,” or more closely, Childish Gambino’s “This is America” in terms of subject matter.
At the 2020 Grammy’s, Clark won Best Rock Performance and Best Rock Song for “This Land,” and finally, Best Contemporary Blues Album for This Land. Indeed, this new album appeared to be a creative risk for Clark, but it has been met with a lot of support from the academy and fans alike. Going forward, it will be interesting to see where Gary Clark Jr. takes his projects. So far, he has done a great job of crossing genres and melding social commentary with artistry, so we are eagerly looking forward to new songs and developments in the coming year.
Written by Brennan White