Published Apr 13, 2016The vibe surrounding Gary Clark Jr. and his band of Johnnys (Johnny Radelat on drums and Johnny Bradley on bass) was one of calm, cool collectedness as they wandered out onto the Commodore stage last night (April 12) to a rendition of Earl King's "Those Lonely, Lonely Nights," a feeling maintained even as their set reached well into its second hour. Clark was selective in his banter, sprinkling the odd mumbled gratitude throughout but electing mostly to let his music speak for itself.
Truly, there was no doubt regarding Clark's skill. He consistently delivered epic, Hendrix-ian solos with blistering fretwork and a myriad of manipulated tones, going perfectly off-script on just about every track, while his voice alternated between typically bluesy Johnny "Guitar" Watson broke-down drawl and a sweetly shimmering Al Green falsetto.
With the bespectacled Bradley blending into the shadows, save the rumble of his bass emanating from the fog, and an occasional (and well-deserved) spotlight blazing up Radelat, the beefy, tank-topped drum machine who put his bulging biceps to good use, "Travis County" had the propulsive energy of "Jim Dandy" by Black Oak Arkansas. "Ain't Messin' 'Round" had a "Memphis Soul Stew" boil going, while "Don't Owe You A Thang" took them down to the "Crossroads" of Cream. They had their classic R&B, soul and blues-tinged sound nailed down.
The crowd got right into it, with several plumes of pot smoke wafting up during the soulful ballad "Our Love," and later, after "Please Come Home," the audience started an impromptu "Gary! Gary! Gary!" chant that Radelat quickly added kicks to, to underscore its beat. Clark seemed momentarily taken aback by all the love — it must be quite a trip to go from opening for the Foo Fighters at Rogers Arena in September to selling out back-to-back dates at the Commodore half a year later on the same tour, and still get that kind of response. When the "Gary!" chant popped up again during the wait for the encore, Clark sincerely thanked them for it. Though a man of few words, he was thoroughly courteous, with a modest "aw shucks" hiccup in his delivery.
An hour into the set, during "Please Come Home," Clark cut his solo short, and merely sidestepped for a few bars. He said he just wanted to hear it for a minute, but he probably needed, and certainly deserved, the break. His whole band showed impressive endurance in pulling this lengthy set together so smoothly. The Johnnys also took a little breather, in the encore. Clark returned to the stage solo, knocking out the rhythm for "Things Are Changin'" on his guitar as he played and sang. Adding a spoonful of harmonica for "Church" gave him a vintage Bob Dylan aura, while Radelat quietly snuck onstage to add a lumbering kick and tambourine beat.
After the sleepy bedroom jam "Down To Ride" got the band back together, Clark raised a glass and gave a final cheers before dropping into "The Healing," which was basically the mission statement from his 2015 album, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim. In singing about how his music heals and sets him free, the finale gave him another opportunity for a face melting solo of murky wah-wah, teased whammy and fine-tuned distortion.
Ultimately, though, Clark's sound is still more House of Blues than actual blues, more in line with Ten Years After or Savoy Brown's coming along after the fact than Muddy Waters or Howlin' Wolf's creating the moment. Clark had great tone and dexterous fingering, and his band supporting him every step of the way, but there were lots of cliché crutches, unimaginative riffs and arrangements that took some of the bite away from his skill. If you always know when someone is going to be spontaneous, it's not much of a surprise.
As a songwriter, Clark hasn't quite shown the original creative spark that made Dylan, Prince, Hendrix or George Clinton who they were, but he's far more convincing and impressive than Hozier at doing a somewhat similar thing. Clark has the passion and honesty to get up there with the greats, if only he lets the beast of inspiration loose. It would be transcendent to see him go off the progressive, psychedelic Funkadelic deep end, as he clearly has the talent to pull off extended Eddie Hazel-esque solos.