There’s been some incredibly lofty praise slung Gary Clark Jr.’s way in the last few years. Around the time of his 2012 major-label debut Blak and Blu, Rolling Stone labeled him “savior of the blues” and the stream of comparisons to Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and almost any other six-string-slingin’ demigod you can imagine have since come thick and fast. Having spent the two years following the release extensively touring the globe, the next logical step for the Austin-born guitarist would surely be a live album and that’s exactly the route he’s chosen with the pretty directly titled LIVE. Much like one of his best known songs featuring on this two-disc set, it seems Gary indeed Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round.
His shows have long been championed for their improvisational, setlist-free approach and this “keep-it-loose-to-keep-it-tight” ethos is captured to great effect on LIVE. Clark Jr.’s band – fellow Texans King Zapata on rhythm guitar and bass player Johnny Bradley with New Jersey-via-Miami drummer Johnny Radelat – may never receive the hyperbolic outpouring of love from their peers and the press as their fearless leader, but hot damn if they aren’t one of the tightest, gnarliest and most soulful blues units doing the rounds today! It’s this unique musical communication between the four of them that keeps some of the more – let’s say “free-form” moments of LIVE afloat.
10-minute blues odysseys aren’t everybody’s cup of tea and this must be something of which Gary (or at least his bosses at Warner Brothers) must be keenly aware. For every intergalactic swamp-stompin’ jam – like opener Catfish Blues or Blak and Blu highlight When My Train Pulls In – there’s a concise, commercially viable counterpart like the rockabilly infused jump-blues of Travis County or the velvety R&B of Things Are Changin’, the latter of which proves Clark Jr.’s romantic croon is just as impressive as the white hot licks he wrenches from his trademark hollow-body Epiphone track after track.
Despite the noticeable absence of the triumphant brass that heralds the beginning of the album version of Ain’t Messin’ ‘Round, the irrepressible swagger of the song’s opening lyric (“I don’t believe in competition/Ain’t nobody else like me around”) lives up to the gospel revivalist momentum of its electrifying groove. There’s something endearing about the distracting amp-buzz in If Trouble Was Money – sometimes you’ve gotta turn it up to 11 to get the right tone for songs like these – and his famous take on the Hendrix tune Third Stone From The Sun – sees a truly astounding command of Eastern-tinged modal scales to counterbalance the immediacy of his well-worn, yet hearty pentatonic blues.
Clark Jr. takes a remarkable swing at that unmistakable Jeff Buckley brand of falsetto on Please Come Home but with a creamy vibrato and soulfulness that belongs to Gary and Gary alone before the title-track of his most renowned studio album gets an incredibly dynamic, similarly Buckley-esque treatment in solo mode. This intimacy is short-lived though, with the explosive return of one of the festival circuit’s most visceral backing bands on Bright Lights bolstering yet another wailing solo the like of which would surely do the late Texan guitar god (and undoubted personal hero to Clark Jr.) Stevie Ray Vaughn proud.
The record ends with the appropriately named When The Sun Goes Down – a gentle, Sunday-afternoon-on-the-porch blues capped off with a honkin’ harmonica solo delivered yet again without a band to hide behind (not that Gary really needs one).
If you don’t count the artist-approved bootlegging scene popularized by the Grateful Dead, Phish, Dave Matthews Band and countless others, LIVE has to be the best double live album by a blues/roots artist since the 2001 Ben Harper collection Live From Mars. This is no mean feat yet Gary and his incredible band have managed to capture the energy and ever elusive “vibe” of a live set spectacularly here and justify the slew of accolades afforded to them by the media and audiences alike.