As astounding as the talents of young guitarists such as Derek Trucks and Joe Bonamassa are, it's unlikely they are effecting the future survival of blues with the same impact as Gary Clark Jr.
Sunday night (Sept. 29, 2013) at House of Blues Anaheim, the Austinite’s first major headlining appearance in Orange County following a spot opening for Dave Matthews Band in Irvine earlier this month, it was fascinating to see so many teens and young 20-somethings in the diverse crowd moving to the music and gazing in awe every time Clark unleashed another virtuosic display on a favorite Fender or Epiphone.
All ages seemed to be in tune with the performance and impressed by the singer-guitarist, whose freewheeling fretwork combines the approach of towering talents like Jimi Hendrix, Alvin Lee and Buddy Guy, while his uncommon falsetto evokes the great Al Green. A knack for powerful songwriting completes his formidable arsenal.
I last caught Clark in an inspired set at Coachella 2012, six months before the arrival of his widely hailed full-length debut for Warner Bros., Blak and Blu. But this two-hour turn in Anaheim proved he’s gotten even better, already one of the best and most unique electric guitar players on the planet. He’s also a magnetic stage presence, his seemingly bottomless bag of musical tricks leaving audiences eagerly anticipating what knockout might come next.
The six-string whiz, who turns 30 in Feburary, opened with a 10-minute version of "Ain't Messin 'Round" that immediately established a kind of magic in the room. Backed by a fantastic three-man band, the performance was nuanced from the get-go: Rather than simply play speedy fills or conventional blues solos, his fluid work erupted and subsided in support of the song itself. At one point he even made his axe whistle artfully.
Clark's wide range of songs would be a train wreck in most other hands. But bounding from Chicago-steeped and Delta blues to Chuck Berry rockers (like "Travis County"), from old-school soul ("Please Come Home") to experimental, genre-be-damned forays (like "You Saved Me" and his fusing of Hendrix’s "Third Stone from the Sun” with his own “If You Love Me Like You Say"), all reinforced that this heralded upstart is like no one else of his generation. His quest to enliven old forms is why significant figures from Jimmie Vaughan and Eric Clapton to the Rolling Stones have embraced his ascent.
"When My Train Pulls In" found Clark diving into three extended solos, each a sonic world unto itself. The last was the most explosive of all, the tall gent working a wah-wah pedal to produce distinctive cries of increasing fervor. At other times in his set he used dramatic tapping or would move his pick up and down quickly to create propulsive rhythm effects. Whether performing alone or with his band, the magic just kept coming.
He ended his regular set with an ignited version of his best-known song, "Bright Lights," making each note count while singing with authentic emotion. And a highlight of his 15-minute encore was "Numb," during which Clark added slide work to enrich the heavy rocker.
Fellow Austin-based singer-guitarist Max Frost opened with a batch of material that similarly blends blues with funk, jazz and rock. He came armed with a good voice and a solid command of his instrument, yet Frost's solos seemed draped in a muddy, reverb-laden mix that took away any bite from his material.
Photo: Kelly A. Swift, for the Register