With the very first line of the very first track on his first major album, Gary Clark Jr. manages to encapsulate all the ideas that his record label, Warner Bros., has spent the better part of a year aggressively regurgitating. "I don't believe in competition," Clark sings on "Ain't Messin 'Round," backed by a horn section that's more Huey Lewis than Otis Redding. "Ain't nobody else like me around."
As a laid-back, bearded, sometimes knit-cap-wearing "blues fusion" guitar player from Austin, Clark would at first appear to be the very antithesis of unique. But if you don't believe the 29-year-old's own brash pronouncements of greatness on his breakout 2012 LP Blak and Blu, he's got a fairly ridiculous list of A-list celebrity endorsers ready to back him up.
Jay-Z? Check. Eric Clapton? Check. The Stones? Yeah, already jammed with them. Alicia Keys apparently said Clark "reminds me of Jimi Hendrix and Marvin Gaye." And then there's the president. Not the president of Warner Bros., but the actual POTUS, Barack Obama, who watched Clark perform at a White House event and proclaimed — in what would arguably become the easiest PR banner quote in history — "he's the future."
Of course, the future tends to bring plenty of mystery with it, and Gary Clark Jr. is no exception. While he's been perfecting and experimenting with blues guitar since age 12 and winning over Austin audiences for the better part of a decade, there's still something about Clark's unanimously beloved melding of the old and new schools, the hip-hop and rock worlds, and the mainstream and indie aesthetics that makes him almost too good to be true — like a lab experiment Warner Bros. conducted by stealing the dreams of a thousand SXSW attendees.
Clark is not always first in line to bring his own mythos into focus, either. When the Scene was seeking out the elusive guitar hero, his own reps admitted they didn't actually know where he was or when he would return from wherever that might be. "It's nothing new. He just goes AWOL sometimes," they explained in an email that also included a press sheet with the aforementioned Obama quote.
In interviews he did manage to conduct, Clark seems like an affable fellow, but there are certainly those ever-necessary undertones of the tortured genius lurking just underneath. To his credit, like many TGs ("tortured genius" shorthand), Clark's greatest quality as an artist seems to be his passion for absorbing everything that has come before. He's openly expressed his admiration not just for obvious touchstones like Hendrix, Buddy Guy and Otis Redding, but also for certain alt-rock idols (Green Day and Nirvana specifically), along with various jazz, hip-hop and country icons.
The resulting notion of a free-for-all mash-up of the "best of the American 20th century" isn't actually that original of an idea — or even a particularly good one in many cases. But it works in this instance largely because Clark, for all his ambitions as a developing songwriter, is just too good a musician to bend under the weight of his influences.
While Clark's own vocal style generally shifts between the gruff neo-blues approach of The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach and a slightly smoother, '90s R&B delivery (as demonstrated in the standout track "The Life"), he also shows off a hidden gem of a falsetto on "Please Come Home." Meanwhile, his ax is an even more versatile weapon. From one moment to the next, you might think you're listening to Neil Young's Crazy Horse-era crunch ("When My Train Pulls In"), Chuck Berry's '50s strut ("Travis County"), a funky jam off a Spinners record ("Things Are Changin' "), or a generically foreboding Jimmy Page riff ("Numb").
Is Clark's slow burn to fame a consequence of the time it took him to finally merge this stew of sounds into something distinct in and of itself? Did he sell his proverbial soul to Warner Bros. down at the crossroads? Or is he, in fact, "the future" of all things when it comes to melodies and stringed instruments and such? You could try to ask him yourself. But odds are, he's off being mysterious somewhere.