There’s no question that Gary Clark Jr.’s music is born of the blues, a deep, nasty Texas blues strained through “Electric Ladyland” and Curtis Mayfield.
It’s often raw and unadorned, an approach not uncommon in the wake of The White Stripes and The Black Keys, but Clark can also slip easily into sweet, effortless soul. But what really sets Clark apart, and the reason he’s been written up in Guitar World as well as Spin, is the way he’s faithful to his root inspirations while nudging the groove forward.
That comes from hearing deep blues while growing up in Austin, Texas, but it was mixed with everything from Motown to hip-hop to the Ramones. When he plays, however, what you feel most is a hypnotic drive with authentic juke-joint DNA.
“I’ve just always done what feels right, and put it out for folks to check out,” said Clark, 28, who performs Thursday at Headliners Music Hall.
“I never really made any conscious effort to put all the dots together. I’ve listened to a lot of different styles, so it’s (all) bound to seep in there to some degree. ... I started by just playing tracks I was digging, and then just let it flow from there.”
Clark’s rise was atypical. He was recognized early on as a prodigy, and Clifford Antone began booking him into his club, Antone’s, when Clark was a teen. He recorded some independent albums, won multiple Austin Music Awards, and then had a starring role in John Sayles’ 2007 film, “Honeydripper.”
Even though Clark’s style fit easily alongside far more popular bands such as The Black Keys, it wasn’t until a 2010 appearance at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival that he was embraced on a national scale. He was signed to Warner Bros. Records and released the ferocious and critically acclaimed “Bright Lights EP.”
After that, the guitar hero tag was applied hot and heavy. Stories began referring to Clark as the “savior of the blues,” one of those seemingly positive things that can backfire in time (see: Clapton is God).
“It’s a big compliment, but it’s a little weird,” Clark said. “That’s a big thing to carry on, especially when there are so many musicians out there really doing their thing in a big way.”
In Texas, the blues gets more airtime than in most other places; Louisville, for example, has one dedicated blues bar where it used to have a half-dozen. So Clark was lucky to be around a scene where Lightnin’ Hopkins and Freddie King are still considered vital — “There’s definitely a big blues scene and a big awareness in Austin,” he said — but luckier still to have parents with a record collection that contained funk, soul and R&B.
Clark’s recordings have so far been heavy on the blues with strong nods to a sound that’s almost neo-soul, as on “Things Are Changing,” from “Bright Lights.” Clark is still working on his first full-length for Warner Bros., and he isn’t limiting himself, he said, planning to take his music in “as many directions as possible.”
Reporter Jeffrey Lee Puckett can be reached at (502) 582-4160.