A Guitar Hero Takes the Stage

December 14th, 2011

Gary Clark Jr. – Mercury Lounge – December 13, 2011

Gary Clark Jr. took the stage last night at Mercury Lounge and hit one chord on his guitar. The note hung in the air, resonating with distortion and feedback for several minutes. As the energy in the sold-out room grew, so did the anticipation and the expectation, until the band finally joined him in an explosion of rock and roll. Clark spent the better half of the next 80 minutes single-handedly reinvigorating the blues genre. His guitar playing was a sight to behold. When he got rolling, his playing seemed to grow fangs, vicious, rip-the-flesh-off-the-bone kind of stuff. But Clark was the full package, and his voice was as equally impressive, sweet, soulful and pure.

The comparisons are easy because he made them clear throughout his set: Jimi Hendrix, yes, but also the straight blues of Robert Johnson, the soulful R&B of Marvin Gaye on “Things Are Changing” and the unfettered rockabilly of Chuck Berry on “Going Out That Back Door.” The material is familiar—trains coming and going in time with love sought and lost—but we haven’t heard it like this, not for a long time. One 10-minute stretch summed it all up: A long distorted note made way for a blues jam that finally coalesced around Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun” before melting in a fury of guitar, bass and drums and becoming a ferocious “Gotta Set You Straight.”

After multiple red-meat solos, Clark stepped back and played rhythm while the rest of his band revealed they were a full-throated, not-too-shabby power trio of their own. Their jam dissolved into a drum solo before Clark re-emerged, weaving three or more mind-altering guitar solos with the “Third Stone” theme before finally coming to an end to let awestruck concertgoers process what they had just witnessed. Later, Clark was equally compelling on his own, playing two songs solo including a beautiful version of the traditional “Freight Train.” The set concluded well after midnight with his “hit” song, “Bright Lights,” which encapsulated the show with the bounty of pitch-perfect vocals, overlapping guitar solos, its NYC setting and the boast that “you’re going to know my name by the end of the night.” It ain’t bragging if it’s true. —A. Stein