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Review: Gary Clark Jr. dishes sizzling, inventive blues at Jannus Live in St. Petersburg

19

February

They always said Gary Clark Jr. could play a mean guitar, could sing the hell out of the blues, could channel Jimi and Stevie Ray like no one else in Texas.

Tampa Bay fans wouldn’t know, considering how long the lanky Austinite’s been overdue for a proper headlining gig here. All we had were tall tales from travelers and festivalgoers about Clark’s searing live chops. He was Bunyan in boots, Keyser Soze with a six-string — a genre-melding gypsy who could, and often does, play with just about anyone on the planet.

Judging from Clark’s sizzling, sold-out concert at Jannus Live in St. Petersburg on Thursday, he might’ve been undersold.

Three days after honoring B.B. King at the Grammys, Clark kicked off his “Story of Sonny Boy Slim” Tour by offering a clinic on the blues and much more, fusing elements of grunge, metal, reggae, psychedelia, doo-wop, folk and rockabilly into a fiery gumbo all his own.

It’s this fluidity that’s made Clark, 32, a hero not just among blues fans and guitar nerds, but indie kids, classic rockers, country pickers, you name it. He really can do it all without breaking a sweat (although mercury in the low 60s on Thursday might’ve had something to do with that).

When Clark opened the night with an ominous, rolling-thunder intro to opener Bright Lights, it felt like he was stretching his rock-hard hard rock muscles. And he flexed those guns all night, finding Hendrix’s Seattle heart in the grungy, lumbering Numb; and diving headlong into Southern metal sludge on Grinder.

But by the second song, Ain’t Messin ’Round, Clark was flying back to Motown and Stax territory, revving up the crowd with holy-hell vocals and seat-of-your-pants solos. And for all his rock-god flair, you think: This, this is where Clark belongs, firing up hootenannies like Travis County and the screaming, sensational Don’t Owe You and Shake.

Even when he’d begin what seemed like a more traditional blues number, Clark would take yet another left turn, such riding a hip-hop groove throughout the menacing The Healing; or sprinkling a hint of Caribbean voodoo on When My Train Comes In, punching the upbeat in reggae-like fashion.

One of Clark’s great gifts: Nudging the blues, a genre that lingers on loss, towards the more uplifting worlds of soul and R&B. His easygoing falsetto at the outset of Hold On floated above a little light funk punctuated with jarringly angular shredding. Same deal on Cold Blooded, a loose and jammy slice of summertime pop you could hear coming from a band like Maroon 5. And slow-dancers Our Love and Please Come Home swayed like the last lovers on a 3 a.m. dancefloor.

But Clark might be most mesmerizing when he follows his own unpredictable muse. On the sinister You Saved Me, he dished out some of his finest vocals, atop not a 12-bar blues progression, but a psychedelic haze of howling, shredding guitars. And on the stark gospel-folk number Church, he brought to mind Bob Dylan, of all people, strumming warmly with a harmonica strapped to his neck.

Never has a man looked more at ease veering from style to style on a dime. Clark is a laconic presence, generous with the guitar faces but otherwise a little inscrutable. Only when a song really hit him in the gut would he venture too far from his mike, pulled to center stage as if by his guitar, kicking a knee into the air when the right note struck. He often shared the spotlight with his rhythm guitarist, Eric “King” Zapata, who got a few shining solos of his own.

A lot of what they said about Clark was true: He played a mean guitar, he sang the hell out of the blues, and his live show was well worth the wait.

But it might be time for those Hendrix and Vaughan comparisons to go. Clark’s his own legend now. And he’s got plenty of time left to write it.

-- Jay Cridlin

[Last modified: Friday, February 19, 2016 1:29pm]

    

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