Gary Clark Jr. At the Rivoli in Toronto on Friday
What a superb thing, in these days of phoney hullabaloo, to see a new artist walking the walk. “You’re gonna know my name by the end of the night,” sang the great black hope of the blues. We knew it before, Gary Clark Jr. We heard your train a-comin’.
Carrying a blues-revival burden (without complaints) on his shoulders and a briefcase full of press clippings, the Texas guitarist arrived in Toronto Friday for the final of four Canadian appearances that began with a spot at the Dutch Mason Blues Festival in Truro, N.S.
At the small, tight-fit Rivoli on Queen Street West, a mixed crowd – of young ladies wearing fedoras and older men smelling of Harley Davidsons – saw Clark close his charismatic, sprawling main set with the brooding swagger of Bright Lights. The lean musician’s groove was greased, his haze was a psychedelic shade of purple, and his blues were sky-kissed.
With a repertoire that was broad in style and with a soulful flair that clearly pleased, Clark had shown he justified the hype and all the hot fuss surrounding him. In general, with the help of his very able backing bassist and drummer, Clark’s approach is muscular and sinuous. He is clearly in thrall with the fireworks of Jimi Hendrix, the elegant funk of Curtis Mayfield and the deep-blues potency of a Freddie King. But he dabbles in more styles than just those.
Don’t Owe You a Thing was hip-shaking swamp-boogie in the manner of Slim Harpo, an upbeat declaration of Clark’s fine accounts-payable status. The slow, forlorn twelve bars of Lowell Fulson’s 3 O'Clock Blues, sung smoothly with no calculated emotionalism, were a timely change from some of his more rugged material.
Clark is in favour of doo-wop falsetto ballads from the Eisenhower era, though he’s not so slavish to the genre that he wouldn’t interrupt the retro mood with a raw-struck solo from his hollow-body electric.
We heard juke-joint romps and droning Delta blues. Homage was paid to Chuck Berry. On the oft-covered My Baby’s Gone, the earthy slide-guitar shuffle of Elmore James was saluted.
Softer moments were had with a two-song solo spotlight, comprised of the genteel finger-picking of Elizabeth Cotten’s Freight Train and the sweetly sad Mississippi night of Clark’s own When the Sun Goes Down, about a love in vain.
An encore set unforeseeably placed a modern slow jam ( Things Are Changing, off his just-out major-label debut Bright Lights EP) directly aside the down-home country-blues chug of One Way Out. That particular show of versatility was not necessarily needed, but it did testify to Clark’s unwillingness to be placed in any one box.
And speaking of not being placed in boxes, the blues genre wakes up one more morning. Clark, who was the hit of hip festivals in Tennessee and Texas, and whose amalgamation of old influences sounds new-fashioned, is now seeing the same bright lights and big cities that Jimmy Reed saw in the 1950s, and he is taking to them seemingly without a flinch. At one point he reached up and adjusted the onstage lighting, fixing the angle just so. The sometimes actor is photogenic and popular. We saw all his best sides.