We could really use the blues right now. The current cultural climate is part angry, part ambivalent, and the blues seems like the perfect style of music to give us both an outlet for our anger and a salve for our ambivalence. Hip-hop has replaced the blues in the African-American culture as the chosen medium of protest and expression, so a style that used to be as vital to an entire culture as gospel music has long been the purview of old white people named Eric Clapton. But given the state of affairs right now, it’s not surprising that the past couple of years have seen black artists ride a wave of blue music to fringe popularity, such as Benjamin Booker, Leon Bridges, and Gary Clark Jr. (I guess Leon Bridges is more accurately a soul artist in the vein of Sam Cooke, but if you don’t think Bridges is singing the blues then you’ve never heard him sing.)
Gary Clark Jr. is the most prominent of this new wave of African-American blues singer-guitarists, and he was the first to receive the blessing of the old guard. Specifically, the aforementioned Mr. Clapton invited him to his 2010 Crossroads Music Festival, after which Rolling Stone crowned him the future of blues music. He’s opened for the Rolling Stones and played with the likes of B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Jeff Beck. Growing up in Austin, TX and mentored by Jimmie Vaughan, blues greatness seems like it’s always been his destiny. And yet somehow both his major-label studio albums have fallen flat.
That’s not to say there aren’t amazing songs on those albums. In fact, almost every song off 2012’s Blak and Blu feels like it’s just a few production choices from being essential. The brand new Story of Sonny Boy Slim is more of a mixed bag, but, again, songs like “Church” and “Hold On” do achieve a special kind of potency missing on a lot of the other tracks. There’s no denying Clark Jr. is a special talent, especially when he starts shredding. His voice is unremarkable for a blues singer, but his guitar play is darkly magical. It’s a shame that sometimes Clark Jr. downplays his strengths by overthinking his own ambition; he is so determined to not just play the blues that he fills the margins with hip-hop and soul flourishes.
The lackluster level of Clark Jr.’s studio albums is especially disconcerting this year when you listen to the lyrics and recognize how badly he obviously wanted this record to speak to the country’s racial tensions. On opening track “The Healing”, Clark Jr. sings, “We stand in formation / While they test and see / They compile information / And try to make us believe”, but responds to himself in the chorus with, “This music is my healing / Lord knows I need some healing / ’cause this world upsets me / This music sets me free.” And later on “Hold On” he addresses things head on: “Seem like new news / Is the old news from a different angle / Another mother on TV / Crying ’cause her boy didn’t make it”. But good intentions don’t make an album great. These sentiments would have been much stronger if they weren’t so suffocated by studio production.
I’m not a musician or a producer, so maybe I’m totally wrong about all of this. Regardless, it seems like a simple fix for Clark Jr. in the future: release only live albums. His live album from last year (appropriately titled Live) features a bunch of the songs from Blak and Blu and a couple stellar covers, and it might be one of the five best albums of the decade, studio-recorded or live. Going from listening to his studio albums to hearing his live album is like exiting a tunnel. The live recording opens the songs up and allows his guitar-playing to wheel freely. Live highlights Clark Jr.’s strong songwriting better than either of the studio albums.
I don’t want to sell Sonny Boy Slim short. There are vital songs on this record, and it’s worth a listen.
Can’t wait for the live version though.