Back on the ACL stage in support of is terrific new record The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, singer, songwriter and guitarist Gary Clark Jr. kicked things off with his signature tune “Bright Lights.” Joined not only by his longtime band guitarist King Zapata, bassist Johnny Bradley and drummer Johnny Radelat, but also singers Stevvi Alexander and Sophia Stephens and a horn section borrowed from Austin Afrobeat act Hard Proof, the Austin native blazed right into rocking soul tune “Ain’t Messin’ Round” and rumbling blues anthem “When My Train Pulls In,” both from breakthrough LP Blak and Blu. Clark employed clean tones, rather than the fuzz in which he often indulges, resulting in a looser, more open sound. That new sonic aesthetic especially suited the songs from the new record, which is a more vocal- and groove-oriented affair than his past guitar-slinging work. The sparse, funky “Hold On” and the slow ‘n’ soulful “Our Love” allowed Clark to break into an alluring falsetto, a tactic that worked even more effectively on the biting, 70s-style soul attack of “Cold Blooded.”
Clark returned to Blak and Blu for “You Saved Me,” a quiet storm ballad that’s not quiet at all, thanks to his power chords. The pull of new tunes proved strong, though, as Clark jumped back into Slim with both feet. He sat at the electric piano for the seductive “Wings” – “I’ve never done that before, it was kinda scary,” he remarked. He was back on the six-string for “Grinder,” a well-titled blues rocker highlighting what the Austin Chronicle notes as his “raw, visceral fearlessness as a soloist,” really pumping the crowd up. He brought the mood back to a quieter place with the stripped-down gospel plea “Church,” before ending the main set with “The Healing,” a funky blues tribute to his muse that asserted “This music is my healing!” The rapt audience agreed.
Following chants of “Gary! Gary!,” Clark encored with Slim’s “Shake,” a dirty boogie that featured Zapata on a rollicking slide solo. The high energy romp left the crowd satiated at last. It was a stellar performance by a young artist developing by leaps and bounds, and we can’t wait for you to see it when it airs this fall on your local PBS station.