“I was taught to be patient,” intones Gary Clark Jr., on the gospel-tinged “Church,” just one of the many delicious highlights
from his new record, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim. It’s clear the Texas-born singer and guitarist was an astute student. Though he has pierced the national consciousness only within the last couple of years, Clark devoted the last decade to meticulously honing his craft, and he played damn near every club and festival between Austin, Tex., and Berlin.
His patience paid off. Building on the success of 2012’s Blak and Blu, the impressively diverse (and highly anticipated) Sonny Boy Slim should further cement Clark’s position as modern blues rock’s preeminent voice.
We’re talking about a versatile blues-rock musician with cross-generational appeal.
Not unlike The Black Keys or Alabama Shakes, Clark is a unique talent capable of entrancing multiple generations, from Boomers who insist good music ended with Woodstock to snarky Gen Xers weaned on alt rock to post-genre Millennials far more familiar with The Weeknd than Jimi Hendrix.
This cross-generational appeal rests upon Clark’s nimble walk between tradition and innovation, purity and fusion. His exquisitely muscular riffs (often feeling like a rattlesnake coiling around your neck) and overdriven fuzz place him squarely within the lineage of the Lone Star State’s great blues guitarists: The Winter Brothers (Johnny and Edgar), Albert Collins, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons, T-Bone Walker and, of course, Stevie Ray Vaughan.
The parallels to the late Vaughan require fleshing out. Both were discovered and mentored by Clifford Antone, owner of the iconic, eponymous Austin club; both worked their way through the city’s famed blues/roots scene. As with so many emerging blues-rock six-stringers over the last 20 years, Vaughan has a tendency to haunt Clark’s music, particularly in the live setting. On the nearly eight-minute jam “When My Train Pulls In,” from last year’s Live album, Clark sounds as though he could be communing with the ghost of Stevie.
But Clark isn’t content with merely channeling — he possesses the chutzpah to drag those ghosts into the Internet age. The guitarist’s love of hip-hop exerts a subtle yet profound influence on Sonny Boy Slim. “Hold On,” an examination of personal and societal struggle and perseverance, features wiry licks wrapped around lyrics half-spoken/half-sung. Locking everything in place is a funky R&B groove that would make The Roots’ Questlove proud. Significantly more ambitious in the production department is “The Healing.”
His nimble walk between tradition and innovation is breathing new life into the genre.
Opening with a work chant reminiscent of the field recordings folklorist Alan Lomax recorded for the Library of Congress, the tune gradually blossoms into layers of vaporous soul vocals, rattling percussion, strings, and wisps of feedback and reverb. Its dense structure jibes well with the progressive leanings of Kendrick Lamar and D’Angelo.
Circling back to the aforementioned “Church,” it’s yet another cut benefitting from Clark’s knack for modernization. Going for a gospel-meets-folk feel, Clark has sculpted a passionate and moving anthem that will surely appeal to fans of indie folk and Americana.
It’s not an overstatement to say blues-rock’s future flows through Clark, who clearly is the most promising young axeman since Vaughan. But the 31-year-old isn’t the only musician breathing new life into the genre. He belongs to a larger trend, one that’s been gaining steam over the last 10 years. It’s a trend that emphasizes diversity and innovation over mimicry and traditionalism.
Honoring roots is central to the blues, no doubt about it. But for the genre to remain relevant it has to feel novel and modern. This is something Clark and his fellow blues rockers understand.
Clark and Other Blues-rock Revivalists
The 21st century’s blues rock revival started with two outfits, and we all know who they are: The Black Keys and The White Stripes. When they began their ascendancy to pop stardom in the early aughts, blues rock was for squares – totally uncool. Languishing in bar band purgatory, the genre bore the sting of countless ruthless jokes — like Blues Hammer, the fictional group of Corona Lite-loving bozos howling about “pickin’ cotton all day long” in the 2001 flick Ghost World.
What the Keys and Stripes offered was a fresh alternative. They weren’t bar rockers playing “Bad to the Bone” at the local watering hole, but rather walking encyclopedias of archaic blues who cut their teeth in America’s garage punk scene. This mix of record collector geekdom and alternative cool enabled them to create blues rock that was edgy, raw, learned and really rather hip — the very antithesis of Blues Hammer.
Perhaps their most distinctive contribution to modern blues rock consists of their novel approaches to rhythm (which have inspired an entire generation of musicians). Despite the fact that Dan Auerbach and Jack White seem to harbor an intense dislike for one another, they share a knack for writing songs utilizing big, metronomic beats that blur the lines between the minimalist grooves of blues icons Hound Dog Taylor and Junior Kimbrough and hip-hop’s mechanized repetition.
This at first blush might sound far out, but it’s really not. Hip-hop’s influence has seeped into every genre imaginable, so why not blues rock? White and Auerbach, it should be noted, have both collaborated with hip-hop artists. The Black Keys went so far as to produce Blakroc, a rap album featuring cameos from Mos Def, RZA, A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip, Raekwon and others.
It’s safe to say Gary Clark, Jr.’s stabs at integrating blues rock and hip-hop are partly inspired by the Keys and Stripes. The same can be said of Royal Blood. If you have yet to hear the English duo’s debut, one of rock’s breakout successes of 2014, then what are you waiting for? Occupying the thunderous end of the blues rock spectrum, Royal Blood unload expertly calibrated beats that suggest childhoods spent worshipping The White Stripes, Outkast and Led Zeppelin (whose music hip-hop producers have sampled heavily through the years). They’re loud, bombastic and 110% cocky in their swagger. The hit single “Out of the Black” is bruising evidence of this. Dave Grohl and Zep’s Jimmy Page are fans — nothing else needs to be said, really.
Considering the American South is the cradle from which the blues and rock ‘n’ roll emerged, it should come as little surprise to anybody that the region plays a crucial role in the blues rock revival. Alabama Shakes lead the way, of course. The hitmakers hail from Athens, Ala., just down U.S. Route 72 from Muscle Shoals, a legendary breeding ground for Southern soul and blues. Powerhouse singer Brittany Howard and company have quite a lot in common with Clark. Their major-label debuts are each faithful in the devotion paid to old-school sounds; their respective follow-ups, in contrast, take significantly more sonic risks. This is especially true of the Shakes’ Sound & Color. Released last April, it contains electronic touches woven into alien song structures that radically redefine blues rock.
Currently residing in New Orleans, Benjamin Booker became an overnight sensation thanks to his 2014 debut, one of the most ecstatic slabs of boogie that 21st-century blues rock has coughed up. Booker’s voice is wildly raspy and full-tilt, his guitars snarling and crusty. (And let’s not forget all that gooey organ — so awesome.) This dude rocks, plain and simple.
Having notched appearances on Late Night with David Letterman and Conan, he’s now popular enough to play 700-seat theaters. The ultimate setting, however, would have to be a packed house party with whiskey-infused sweat clinging to the walls.
In terms of manic energy, JD McPherson is Booker’s equal. Hailing from Oklahoma, where in the 1950s and ’60s rockabilly, Texas blues and R&B coalesced into a distinctly regional flavor (see JJ Cale, Leon Russell and Elvin Bishop), McPherson is a denim-clad greaser harboring a love for rollicking twang, banging ivories, big horns and echo slap. His latest, Let the Good Times Roll, released last February, boasts a deeply retro vibe. Yet the songs never feel like museum pieces. McPherson’s passionate and deep sense of fun prevents that from ever happening.
Lastly, let’s devote some words to Steve Gunn. Of the many musicians spotlighted in our article, he’s the under-the-radar pick. But he won’t be flying that way for much longer after he was handpicked by Wilco to open their tour. Jeff Tweedy knows a special talent when he hears one, and Gunn — a dazzling singer, songwriter and guitarist living in New York City — certainly fits the bill.
His earliest recordings are experimental mixes of Piedmont blues picking, raga-flavored folk rock and psychedelia. But on his most recent full-length, the critically lauded Way Out Weather, he pours his esoteric interests into a set of tunes that are as catchy as they are exploratory.
The introspective Gunn might not rock the house like Booker, nor shake the pillars of heaven a la Royal Blood, but make no mistake about it: The man is making some of the most vital blues-rock around.
For those who have been announcing the death of rock, blues and just about any other genre that predates smartphones and cloud computing, and that we will be buried under a de facto brave new world soundtrack of electronic music, it’s time to rethink that stance. Gary Clark, Jr., The Black Keys, Benjamin Booker, Jack White and Alabama Shakes have shown us that we still crave sweaty, raucous music made with guitar, bass and drums. That’s a good thing.
More blues rock to tune in to
If you dig the blues rockers mentioned in our article, then here are some more you should be jamming: Black Joe Lewis, The Heavy, Blues Pills, Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats, North Mississippi Allstars, Leon Bridges, Vintage Trouble, Curtis Harding, Duke Garwood, Rival Sons, Shakey Graves, Black Pistol Fire, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Deap Vally, Patrick Sweany, California Breed, JJ Grey & Mofro.