A little more than an hour before Gary Clark Jr. is to take the stage inside Lincoln Experience at Fashion Island Saturday night, the young bluesman and new face of the luxury automaker is asked if the intimate space can survive his band’s big sound.
Clark, who is chillaxing on an Island Hotel suite’s sofa, explains that he hasn’t yet seen the venue.
“How small is it?” he asks.
About the size of two of these suites, he is told.
His eyes light up. A sly smile crosses his face. “I’ll be as respectful as possible,” Clark says in his thoughtful and soft-spoken manner, “without losing my vibe.”
You can’t imagine him ever losing his vibe.
He started playing guitar at 12 and was turning heads in his musically significant hometown of Austin, Texas, by his teen years.
“I picked up a guitar and said, ‘This is your life now.’”
Clark dove into blues because of a girl next door. Eve Monsees was into the music and was learning how to play it on guitar. Through her father, who repaired jukeboxes in bars downtown, Monsees and Clark began jamming at the Sunday Night Blues Party hosted by Walter Higgs and the Shuffle Pigs at Babe’s on 6th Street. Monsees now leads Eve and the Exiles.
“I was just intrigued,” Clark says of blues during his youth. “It was like my own thing, my own club. I was also listening to hip-hop and R&B. I find elements of hip-hop in old blues records. This is foundational. It has stood the test of time.”
The first two records he bought were Texas Flood by Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble and Experience Hendrix: The Best of Jimi Hendrix. You can hear and see the influence of each in Clark’s music and stage presence. The young Clark also watched Austin City Limits and was exposed of a whole range of blues players, from Stevie Ray’s brother Jimmie Vaughan to Bonnie Raitt.
Reminded that he had appeared at blues festivals with Buddy Guy on the bill, Clark was asked about the legendary bluesman’s bit where, with a single guitar, he produces on cue the identical licks of B.B. King, Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn and others. How does he do it?
“It’s just years of owning your instrument,” Clark says of Guy’s amazing feat. “He knows each part of the sound spectrum. With that Buddy Guy Stratocaster, he can do anything.”
Clark recalled the time his father took him to see Guy at the Austin music club Antone’s, but the house was so packed they could not get in. “I’m going to get there one day,” Clark says he told himself that night and, sure enough, Antone’s would serve as his launching pad, as it had for the Vaughn brothers. Club owner Clifford Antone, Jimmie Vaughn and others in the Austin music community helped Clark rise to prominence.
He has since shared the stage with his musical influences. Clark recalled the 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival, when he found himself next to Guy, B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck. Two years later, at the White House, Guy, King, Beck and Mick Jagger were up there with Clark. “I’m happy to hang out with you guys,” he recalled thinking to himself, “but all at once?”
Not that he’s complaining.
“You live for the music. I get inspired by guitar players, hot drummers, good musicians. I love music so much. I never think you’re ever satisfied. I have these crazy dreams where I am a composer and conductor writing pieces for an orchestra. I’m going to do it. Those dreams are what I’m after. … As long as I hear it in my head, I’m still going to keep reaching.”
He is not classically trained and can kick himself sometimes for having turned down a University of Texas music scholarship. “But if I’d gone,” he reasons, “I don’t know if I would have got to hang out with Jimmie Vaughan.”
Having collaborated with Sheryl Crow, Alicia Keys, Foo Fighters, Tech N9nes and Childish Gambino, Clark is asked if he’d like to work with anyone else. “I really respect Robert Glasper,” he says of the Grammy-winning keyboard player, record producer and genre jumper (jazz to R&B to hip-hop to neo soul). “I met him on the Miles Ahead film. [Clark played a member of Miles Davis’ band in the biopic. Glasper served as musical supervisor, composer, and arranger.] I’d like to spend more time talking with him.” Clark would also like to collaborate with fellow Texan Leon Bridges, a soul and gospel singer-songwriter.
As the new face of The Lincoln Motor Co., Clark joins another Texan who spends a lot of time in Austin as a brandmate, Matthew McConaughey. Lincoln is betting Clark and McConaughey can help shape the perception that the auto line is cool. It won't hurt that Clark is long, lean and handsome.
We’ve seen the McConaughey ads. During this evening’s Grammy telecast, Lincoln’s 60-second ad “Cord,” starring Clark, debuts.
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The Texan actor may not have brought the Texan musician to Lincoln, but Clark still has a McConaughey story.
“I was playing Agave on 6th Street. I was maybe 21. Matthew McConaughey popped into the club I’m playing. My buddy John, who was working the door, gave him my whole story, he was really gassing me up. So I meet him and, in that voice we’ve all heard, he says, ‘Yeah, man, good to meet you. You got a CD, man? I’d really like to hear it.’”
Clark offered to run over and fetch one out of his car's trunk. “He says, ‘No, I’ll walk with you.’ So I’m walking on the middle of 6th Street with Matthew McConaughey. We talked about being Texans. I gave him my CD and he said, ‘It’s good to meet you, I really appreciate this.'” Clark still remembers the hero’s welcome he received walking along 6th back to the club, with people asking if he and McConaughey were buddies.
They aren’t, yet, but who knows what could come out of the new Lincoln-Texas connection? All Clark knows is, “It’s cool to be a part of that group.”