The rise of Austin’s own Gary Clark Jr. has been a joy to behold, from his days as a teenage blues guitar slinger to the eclectic, critically acclaimed festival draw he is twenty years later. ACL has followed that rise with four previous appearances on the show, starting with his participation in the Jimmy Reed tribute in 2007 up through his 2012 and 2015 headlining slots and his 2015 guest appearance with Foo Fighters. (Not to mention appearances on our Hall of Fame specials and the 40th anniversary celebration.) Through those years, the ATX native has grown by leaps and bounds – and that’s never been more true than now, with his third Warner Bros. studio album This Land. So we were thrilled to welcome him back for a live streamed taping showcasing the widely hailed LP.
Clark got a loud hometown welcome as he came onstage after executive producer Terry Lickona’s introduction. The Austin homeboy basked in his welcome for a second before donning his Epiphone and going into This Land’s “What About Us,” a choogling blues rocker kissed by Clark’s alluring falsetto and co-guitarist Eric Zapata’s legato slide. “Feels good up here,” noted Clark, as Zapata knocked out the twangy riff to “When I’m Gone,” a R&B tune that could’ve come from a lost sixties soul compilation. The leader donned a Gibson SG and announced, “We’re gonna play some rock & roll for ya,” before launching into the grunged-out soul of “Low Down Rolling Stone” – like the other tunes from This Land, it focused as much on his soulful voice as his guitar. Keyboardist Jon Deas contribute a slinky Mini-Moog solo. Clark went back to his falsetto for the crunchy, but still groovy, “I Walk Alone,” taking it home with a gnarly guitar solo.
After a moment to catch his breath, Clark shifted back to a slice of warm-bath soul with “Guitar Man,” a sexy tune that, surprisingly, does not emphasize his six-string wizardry. The falsetto returned once again for “Feed the Babies,” a socially-conscious soul tune that came closer the classic sound of Curtis Mayfield than anyone outside of the man himself. Then the band went into “Feelin’ Like a Million,” an out-and-out reggae song spiced by stabs of power chords. Clark then started banging away at his axe for a repetitive guitar figure that led right into the near-punk of “Gotta Get Into Something,” a breath of fresh rock & roll air. The mood shifted from rock to funk for the similarly titled “Got to Get Up,” a hard groover that let Clark off the leash on his guitar.
After nine songs in a row from the new album, Clark dipped into his back catalog for “When My Train Pulls In,” delivering a more subdued, less fuzz-encrusted reading than usual, often more reminiscent of B.B. King than Jimi Hendrix – at least until the end, when Clark built an extended guitar solo from croon to scream. As a palette cleanser, he essayed the lovely, moody “Blak and Blu,” slowly moving towards his signature tune “Bright Lights,” which came on like a wave crashing to shore. It was the perfect setting for his latest killer: the angry, defiant “This Land,” given a seething, smoldering read. After that bit of catharsis, he ended the main set on a soothing note with the beauteous “Pearl Cadillac,” another showcase for his falsetto singing. That wasn’t quite all, of course, as Clark and band returned for a crowd singalong through his grungy version of the Beatles’ “Come Together” from the Justice League soundtracks. It was a brilliant way to end his third solo taping, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station.