Gary Clark Jr.: The Chosen One
Gary Clark Jr.: The Chosen One
Abone-rattling fuzz roars off the back walls of Madison Square Garden on a recent spring Saturday afternoon. Gary Clark Jr. stands onstage before 19,500 empty seats with his blue Epiphone hollow-body, playing the solo to "Numb" – a brooding blues song with ringing feedback, hazy harmonics and manic, octave-jumping squeals. He paces the stage, listening at all angles, before abruptly taking his guitar off to huddle with his manager. "See how Gary's twisting his hair?" Clark's road manager Blayne Tucker says from the side of the stage. "That means he's nervous."
Clark is preparing for a late-night slot at Eric Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival, a gathering of three dozen of the world's biggest guitar heroes, including Keith Richards, Jeff Beck, the Allman Brothers Band, B.B. King, John Mayer and Buddy Guy. Clark, 29, is the only artist under 30 to score a full-band set. "There is pressure," he says quietly as the crew loads risers of amps onto the rotating stage. "Coming from Austin, there are smany guitar players there. And here I am playing the Garden. It still doesn't feel fair."
Clark has other things to worry about at the moment. His entire family traveled from Austin for the show, and their 10 VIP tickets went missing from the dressing room last night. "I had them in my bag, right here," Clark says, fumbling through his personal stuff on a backstage table. He thinks it might have been someone from the cleaning crew.
It's also not lost on Clark that he owes his career to Crossroads. His short set at the 2010 fest in Chicago propelled him from four-night-a-week residencies at Texas clubs to a deal with Warner Bros.; last October he released his major-label debut, Blak and Blu, and played packed gigs from Coachella to the Royal Albert Hall with Clapton; and his first major theater tour, which starts in September, is selling out. He's played with the Rolling Stones more than any other guest on their current tour. "He's billed as a kind of blues singer, but sometimes he sounds like early Bruce Springsteen," says Mick Jagger. "And I'm not putting it down!"
"He's as good as it gets," says Guy. "Gary reminds me of T-Bone Walker more than anybody I've ever seen. We're all trying to do this to keep this music alive, because the blues is not being played."
Just a year and a half ago, well before he started dating an Australian Victoria's Secret model, Clark lived in a one-story home in South Austin. But he was still full of raw nerves. On an overcast November afternoon in 2011, when we first meet, he paces, chain-smoking Parliaments outside Antone's Nightclub in Austin. Antone's can lay claim to producing Austin's last guitar hero: It was here in the late Seventies that owner Clifford Antone persuaded Albert King to let a teenager named Stevie Ray Vaughan onstage.
This night, a crowd heavy on gray ponytails mingles inside, listening to Jimmie Vaughan play a twangy instrumental take on Little Richard's "Lucille," part of a memorial concert for Doyle Bramhall Sr., the late drummer for Jimmie and Stevie Ray. Clark had been asked to perform but begged off, spending most of the event outside, leaning against the plate-glass windows. "I'm just trying to lie low," he says. "It's cool they would ask me to do it. But it would be like, 'This motherfucker again, sitting in on that show?' I knew [Bramhall] as kind of a fan. All these guys played with him and know him. I just came to pay my respects. Stay out of the way."