A lot has happened since rising singer/guitarist Gary Clark Jr. performed in Atlanta nine years ago. Since playing at the Roxy (now Buckhead Theatre) in 2003, Clark Jr. has been co-signed by legends like Eric Clapton and Questlove, signed to Warner Bros and lately played every festival under the sun. Gary Clark Jr.’s ability to transition from blues covers (“3 O’ Clock Blues”, “Catfish Blues”) to grinding rock anthems must have made an impression last weekend at Bonnaroo because several fans came for another dose and sported brand new festival t-shirts on Tuesday night.
While many descriptions of Gary Clark Jr. focus on his blues background, Tuesday night’s show was very much a rock show and a lesson in string acrobatics. Variety Playhouse was nearly sold out and fans piled close to the stage as soon as the notes to “When My Train Pulls In” emitted from the hanging speakers. Clark Jr. stepped to the stage in a grayish fedora and light blue t-shirt. While not an imposing figure, his thin black beard and sly grin let witnesses know there was something big to come from his slim frame.
While his demeanor seemed reserved initially, it was in stark contrast to his guitar play. Axe enthusiasts drooled over every riff from “Don’t Owe You A Thing”, while fans seemed particularly impressed when Clark Jr. adopted high-pitched vocals on “Please Come Home”. At one point, Clark Jr. moved his fingers to the lower neck of the guitar choking the strings to sound like the scratches of a turntable. By the time the second half of the set arrived, Clark Jr.’s mischievous grin was a gleaming wide smile, as he knew he had the crowd moving to every note.
The big hit everyone waited for was of course “Bright Lights” and Clark Jr. saved the title track of his most recent EP for the end of the set. An inspiring solo filled with heavy guitar growl made way for his catchiest and most popular song to date. Fans shouted the hook and echoed “you’re gonna know my name by the end of the night”. That phrase was true for most onlookers, except one inebriated gentleman to my left who when the time came for a chanting encore, he called the evening’s headliner “Jerry”. The confident bandleader handled the downtempo “In The Evening (When The Sun Goes Down)” solo and recalled his 3-piece band for an extended rock cover of Curtis Mayfield’s funky classic “Move On Up”. When Gary Clark Jr. makes his way back to Atlanta, I’m betting that young man will have figured it out by then.
Pick up Gary Clark Jr.’s Bright Lights EP on Amazon