When Gary Clark Jr. released his EP, Bright Lights, in 2011, he introduced a new era of the Blues. To that point, the Blues had all but disappeared from the mainstream. As a native of Austin, Texas, Gary Clark Jr.’s emergence also represented a reintroduction of the Bluesman, and Black men engaging in the sacred act of using the guitar to deliver the gospel of the Blues. From Lightnin’ Hopkins to Stevie Ray Vaughan, Freddy King to Albert Collins, and many others, the Texas brand of the Blues has become the standard of Blues music and guitar playing. Gary Clark Jr. follows in that tradition and advances its lineage.
On Friday, March 29th, Gary Clark Jr. paid a visit to Philadelphia’s new and improved MET in support of his new album, This Land — his most musically and thematically exploratory album to date. After the show, Kevin and I discussed Gary Clark Jr.’s performance, our thoughts on Philadelphia’s new music venue, the racial dynamics of the Blues in 2019, and much more! Here’s our conversation.
Stanley: What are your initial reactions to the show?
Kevin: Wow......where do I begin? Honestly this show felt like I was watching greatness. I’m about to empty the clip full of cliches here, so bear with me. He owned every part of the stage. It’s almost like he knew that he was a monster and there was nothing any of us could do about it. The stage production/lighting will not go unnoticed here either. It was all WELL done and added to the ambiance/aesthetic.
Now musically, there was nothing he couldn’t do. He is billed as a blues guitarist/artist but he blended so many genres that night, it’s hard to put him in a box. I was also shocked at how well he sang. I mean, I don’t know here... I normally complain about the ticket fees, etc. but the bang met the buck here. He kept upping the previous song even when we all thought that would be the peak. Blown away!
What you thinking though? 2019 has had something to say so far!
Stanley: I thought he was incredible, flat out. Like you said, it felt like he was always in control of the room the entire night. I was really impressed to see his handle on so many different genres, playing each of them really well. I think the biggest takeaway for me, even more than his guitar playing, was his singing. Like, he's a really good singer. And he didn't have any backing tracks from what I can remember, so that's really impressive.
Stanley: This was our first time at the new and improved MET. What did you think about the venue?
Kevin: I’m a corporate sellout lol. We’ve had a number of conversations about LiveNation, etc. but I must admit the venue was impeccable. The sound was top notch, lights on point, pit/standing room only built with short people in mind as it was on a slant. I hate what LiveNation is doing with the monopolizing of booking artists, ticket sells, etc but they got one with The Met. It’s a beauty.
Stanley: Yeahhh, the MET is low key great. The acoustics in the room felt good, the standing room only section helps it maintain the feel of some of the more modern music venues, and the balcony section makes the MET feel like an older Victorian era theater. I was worried that it would feel stuffy and boring, but it's a well done space.
Stanley: Highlight of the show?
Kevin: I’m still singing “Locked and Loaded” loudly around the house, much to my girlfriend’s chagrin. I think I mentioned to you that sometimes I feel Gary Clark Jr. has songs just to get to the guitar solo. Means to an end. But this track is an actual song. A really good song, in my opinion. It’s a big ballad for him. But besides that, the encore was basically a second concert. He had a show the next day and didn’t seem to care. He left it all out on the line for us. And I respect that because sometimes I feel slighted by artists not giving their all to Philly when they visit.
Stanley: I agree - he left no stone unturned, and gave what seemed to be his absolute best. My favorite moment was at the very beginning of the show when he did Bright Lights. It's the song that introduced me to him and the one I that I've connected with the most. Bright Lights is probably one of his more popular songs, so you would think he would want to hold off and use it later. After he finished the song we both said to each other "where does he go from here?" lol. I think him choosing to do Bright Lights first shows a level of confidence in his capabilities and set list. And the song has a line in it where he says "You're gonna know my name by the end of the night" - and it felt like that was the case - if you didn’t know his name before the show, you certainly knew his name after the show.
Stanley: Our boy Jeff lol. Everybody’s boy Jeff. Basically, a kid held up a sign the entire night asking Gary Clark Jr. if he could get on stage and play on stage with him. Apparently, the kid has been to some 20 Gary Clark Jr. shows (???) Near the end of the encore Gary Clark Jr. finally acknowledged him and let him on stage, and he killed it!
But was he a plant? Do we reallllly believe he was just a random kid in the audience?
Kevin: Jeff-gate lol. In the social media age, I believe nothing. Call me a skeptic but something seems fishy. An 18 year old who has been to 20 Gary Clark Jr. shows! Something seems off. And to top it off, he killed it on the stage. Nerves weren’t a thing and he seemed primed and ready for this moment. Though, he was clearly exuberant after he got brought up and it seemed genuine. I just think there is some more meat on the bone here to this story. More details need to emerge.
But you know I have to stay on brand here...what about the crowd demographic. We were two of, what, 17 black people there (including the event staff)? What does he have to do to move past the label of “music for white people”.
Kevin: He clearly channels Curtis Mayfield (as you mentioned to me), D’angelo, neo-soul and what not. But where are the black fans??
Stanley: Very on brand question lol. You know, man, it's just...really ironic. While waiting for Gary Clark Jr. to take the stage the DJ is playing a bunch of R&B, Rock, and Blues songs from the 60s and 70s. If i'm remembering correctly, pretty much all of those artists that the DJ played were Black. To me, the music DJ's play before an artist takes the stage is like a primer for the audience, and also like a nod to the artists lineage and/or contemporaries. I'm saying this to say, Gary Clark Jr./DJ was very intentional in telling where his music was coming from and who he was influenced by.
A bit off the deep end here. **I have little-to-no data to support the claim I’m about to make lol**. But, it seems that the guitar, as a cultural symbol in music, has become associated with whiteness. I'm partly saying this from the experience of playing the guitar, and simply not seeing a lot of other Black people with the instrument in comparison to the bass, drums, or piano, and the number of whites I do see playing the guitar. Still, I would say the instrument has a long, and very important, history of Black people playing the guitar. So, even though Gary Clark Jr.'s music is clearly this amalgamation of Black American music, white fans seem to flock to him, AND it seems as if he is marketed to a slightly older white audience because he plays music similar to the type they grew up with.
To the question of where the Black fans are — another loosely formed thought lol. To me, it seems like the appreciation of Gary Clark Jr.'s music is almost parallel to socioeconomic status. Let me explain lol. What I mean is that, while the Blues is traditionally the music of working class/poor Black people, it has become commodified into this bourgeoisie, "high-taste" style of music. I think the same thing is happening (or has happened) with Rap from the 90s, and how it is being memorialized by institutions like The Grammy's and The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, etc. So, where are the Black fans? Man, I think its partly generational - not being able to sonically connect to music with no 808s lol, and also how the music is marketed.
Where are you at on this? I've rambled enough.
Kevin: The nail has been hit on the head. You rambled your way into some excellent points lol. I agree with everything you just laid out. I just think that, in addition to everything you said, there is something to not being able to shake a label. The label was placed onto Gary Clark Jr. early on that, explicitly or implicitly, his music should/will be consumed by a white audience. Sometimes it’s that first impression thing and people not recalibrating once more musical bodies of work are produced. He is clearly influenced by black music but it may take awhile for more black people to realize this. And yes I think the 808’s thing is real. Once he incorporates that, he’s in lol.