Live North America 2016
Warner Brothers, 2017
REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 03/16/2017
“This music is my healing / When this world upsets me, this music sets me free.”
The thing about this mantra—so simple and direct as to verge on trite—is that Gary Clark Jr. sings it like he’s feeling it from the tips of his long, lanky fingers to the soles of his well-worn shoes. It’s not a line. It’s real. And that’s part of what makes him a special, special talent: that realness.
Singer/songwriter/guitar-slinger Clark has by now long since established himself as a world-class musical alchemist who bounces from influence (the Delta blues of Howlin’ Wolf) to influence (the explosive guitar heroics of Jimi Hendrix) to influence (the smooth old-school soul of Smokey Robinson) to influence (the gritty street poetry of Gil Scott-Heron) with the fluid facility of a born master. Beyond his ability to match these greats stride for stride, again and again, what genuinely astonishes is the way he takes the colors invented by these esteemed forebears and paints fresh pictures with them, inventing new hybrids and fresh tones left and right as if it was the easiest, most natural thing in the world for an artist to do.
I could go on, of course, but it occurs to me that you came for an album review, not a testimonial.
Live North America 2016 culls tracks from Clark’s triumphant runs of shows last year in support of his tremendous 2015 album The Story Of Sonny Boy Slim. The fact that it follows his last concert recording, the two-disc Live, by only two years matters little, as the former drew from pre-Sonny Boy material while the new album debuts live renditions of seven tracks from Sonny Boy plus a pair of classic blues covers. Only two tracks (“When My Train Pulls In” and bruising set-closer “Numb”) are repeated from Live.
Opening up with a pair of big-boned numbers, Clark’s guitar soars and wails through the suitably grinding “Grinder,” holding a single vibrating note at the end that releases all of the wrung-out tension built through the previous five minutes. “The Healing,” source of the opening quote above, is everything you’d want it to be, heartfelt and transporting, climaxing with a swerving, wrenching, emphatic solo that goes positively interstellar. When Clark turns right around and unleashes a devastating falsetto on “Our Love” (a steamy ballad) and “Cold Blooded” (dark electro-soul), you start to understand just how not-fair it is that one slender man contains this much talent.
The midsection of this set features solid, expansive takes on a couple of nuggets from Clark’s 2012 major-label debut Blak And Blue (“When My Train Pulls In” and “You Saved Me”) sandwiched around the closing track from Sonny, the soulful road song “Down To Ride.” He does go on a bit soloing on the former cuts, but it’s such evocative, intense sound-painting that you’re left thinking “Yeah—but Jimi would dig it.”
The fire burns that much brighter when Clark invites the terrific young retro-soul artist Leon Bridges and his sax-man Jeff Dazey on board for an exuberant run at Sonny’s roadhouse boogie number “Shake.” The chuckle Clark lets out at the end tells the story—this one was a blast. Next up, a reverent run through the stately blues cut “Church” receives a cherry on top as Clark adds harmonica to his arsenal of musical weapons deployed.
Introducing the first of two covers that were likely an encore—Jimmy Reed’s bluesy shuffle “Honest I Do”—Clark offers a heartfelt tribute to his musical heroes, mentioning Reed, Albert King, Freddie King, B.B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, and Buddy Guy. Following is Elmore James’ “My Baby’s Gone,” a slow, ferocious solo number featuring Clark on rumbly John Lee Hooker-style vocals punctuated by shotgun blasts of slide guitar. Closer “Numb” opens with big, distorted “Voodoo Chile”-type chords and lumbers to a bludgeoning, skyscraping finish.
Clark’s vocals can feel a little wobbly in places this time out, but the sense you get is that it’s a result of the emotion he’s pouring into his performance, so who can argue. As for the other players, it would be difficult to overstate the importance of the role played by Clark’s band here. King Zapata (guitar), Johnny Bradley (bass) and Johnny Radelat (drums) keep the focus on the man up front, as it should be—they’re his songs, lit up by his voice and guitar—but you can’t recreate his mostly-solo studio recordings live without an excellent band, and these guys are top-line all the way. They’re sharp, they play with real soul and groove, and they’re equally at home supporting gentle ballads and bombastic guitar freakouts.
Live North America 2016 is the latest in a string of triumphs for one of the biggest, boldest, most versatile talents on the scene today. In part because he openly honors and respects his full range of influences, it feels like Gary Clark Jr. has crossed a Rubicon of sorts over the past couple of years. He no longer just admires and emulates the legends who came before him—he’s in the process of becoming one himself.