June 09--Massive crowds lined up early in anticipation of Kanye West's X Games set on Saturday night. On Sunday, the scene was much mellower. In fact, the reserved seat banks at Austin's largest venue were so barren it's a safe guess many music fans shelled out for the three-day reserved seating upgrade primarily to ensure entry to the Kanye show, only to see their music enthusiasm falter after three days of X Gaming in the 90-degree Texas heat.
Consequently, it was an awkward scene when hometown hero Gary Clark Jr. took the stage at 6 p.m. The general admission lawn area at the back of the venue was packed with cheering fans, and a sizable crowd gathered in the pit at the front of the stage, but the two groups were separated by a massive sea of empty red seats. (Before headliner Flaming Lips took the stage, the X Games staff made the wise choice to close the gap, opening the seats to general admission ticket holders.) If Clark was fazed, he didn't show it. The Austin-raised bluesman blazed onto the stage with "Next Door Neighbor Blues," a hard-driving gut-churner that put his guitar chops front and center.
Well-known for his understated manner, Clark didn't spend a lot of time on stage banter. Instead he charged through a 75-minute set that was remarkable for both Clark's increasingly formidable prowess on the guitar -- he's rapidly rising to the level of one of our generation's greats -- and the show's rootsy authenticity. In an era that finds commercial radio forcing artists into formulaic, hook-laden, three-minute song structures, Clark delves deep into the heart of the Southern blues. He builds a verse, howls a chorus and nurtures a guitar riff as long as it needs to find proper release. He closed the set with a blistering, take-no-prisoners rendition of "Bright Lights" that stretched on for over seven minutes.
Only once, halfway through the set, did Clark did pause for a few moments. "I'll do a love song for you," he told the crowd, "because I love you so much." It was a sentimental segue into "Please Come Home," the track that nabbed the 30-year-old Austinite a Grammy Award for Best Traditional R&B performance back in February.
Backstage after the show, Clark emphasized the sincerity of the sentiment. These days, with a heavy road schedule, he lives out of a suitcase and a backpack. He just completed a successful run of festival dates in Europe, playing to tens of thousands, but to Clark there's nothing like playing in the city that raised him. "I love it," he said. "It's like a giant hug."
Clark is serious about his hometown. When he won the Grammy, he was shocked. Before the ceremony, he scoffed when his manager told him to prepare a speech, then suddenly he found himself onstage with no idea what to say. He stumbled through a charming acceptance that included a thank you to fellow Austin musician Eve Monsees. "It was beautiful. It was a proud moment," he said. "My parents were there. I felt proud, not just for me but where I come from. None of that would have happened if it weren't for this place."
A few weeks ago Clark had the opportunity to share the magic of his city with rocker Dave Grohl. Grohl is currently traveling the country with his band the Foo Fighters for an HBO series called "Sonic Highways." The series documents the band's travels across the country as they work on a new album, recording songs at storied studios in each city along the way with host artists serving as their guides.
Grohl "showed up to Austin and had a track," Clark said, "he talked to me for a little while, and from that, wrote the lyrics to the song." Clark and the Foo Fighters recorded the song at the old "Austin City Limits" studio on the University of Texas campus. The new Foo Fighters album is due out in November.
Grohl is not the only successful artist who's taking an interest in Clark's work. On April 30, Clark released a mixtape version of his 2012 release "Blak and Blu," which features appearances by rappers Big Krit and Talib Kweli as well as soul singers Bilal and Alice Smith. Clark, who's been a longtime fan of hip-hop, soul and R&B, didn't collaborate with any of the artists on the mixtape. Instead, he let go of his work, leaving it open to the interpretation of artists he admires. "For Big Krit to take my song, 'When My Train Pulls In,' and just like freak it out like that, it was really cool," he said.
So will there be a live rendition of the mixtape? A tour with Big Krit and Talib Kweli backed by a Gary Clark Jr.-led band?
"Something like that would be a dream," Clark said, his eyes lighting up. "I think this conversation right here is gonna jump that off."
Man, we can surely hope. A dream show indeed.
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