Review: Gary Clark Jr. brought audiences at the Benedum to their feet

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Review: Gary Clark Jr. brought audiences at the Benedum to their feet

Gary Clark Jr. performs during the second weekend of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, on the Empire Polo grounds in Indio, California, on Saturday, April 23, 2016.

Gary Clark Jr. performs during the second weekend of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, on the Empire Polo grounds in Indio, California, on Saturday, April 23, 2016.

Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times/TNS

Gary Clark Jr. performs during the second weekend of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, on the Empire Polo grounds in Indio, California, on Saturday, April 23, 2016.

Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times/TNS

Jay L. Clendenin/Los Angeles Times/TNS

Gary Clark Jr. performs during the second weekend of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, on the Empire Polo grounds in Indio, California, on Saturday, April 23, 2016.

By Darren Campuzano, Staff Writer

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Gary Clark Jr., a 35-year old guitarist, is a musical shapeshifter — and his show at the Benedum Center March 20 confirmed that confining him to one genre only undercuts his malleable approach to playing guitar.

While critics have classified him as a blues-based hard rocker, Clark does not conform to that label. Without hesitation, Clark converts his sound from 12-bar blues to scruffy punk songs to Prince-esque funk — just by leaning on his whammy bar.

“I feel like going crazy right here,” the Austin, Texas-native said at one point in the show.

Clark is on tour to promote “This Land,” his third studio album — a record that feels a little less forced and a little more focused on the direction of his sound as a contemporary electric guitarist. The “This Land” tour contains stops at theaters and concert halls, but the way Clark played the Benedum made it seem like he was outgrowing auditorium audiences, and that an arena setting would better fit his bold sound.

The show started with a hush from the musicians on stage, before the clamor of Johnny Radelat on the snare drum. The lights were low and the crowd could only identify Clark by his 6-foot-5, slender silhouette, much like his latest album cover. Clark’s outfit — a black beanie, gold chain and dark denim on denim — was fully revealed after he hit the first guitar chords of the night. Strapped across his shoulder was an Epiphone Casino model guitar.

What made Clark so sonically pleasing was how he layered his live performance, not how he layered his denim. He opened with “Bright Lights,” one of his earliest and most recognizable songs. He layered a beefy guitar line and coarse, smoky vocals on top of a chorus that loosely models Jimmy Reed’s blues staple from 1961.

“You gonna know my name by the end of the night,” he sang.

Clark was right. Not even 25 minutes into the show, the Benedum crowd chanted “Gary, Gary, Gary.” Ten minutes later, someone cried out.

“Gary for President!”

The audience was unruly and raucous at times — something that you don’t often see at the Benedum, but it just added to the animated atmosphere Clark created.

“The Guitar Man” and “When I’m Gone” were the first two songs Clark chose to play from “This Land,” his 2019 album, marking two of the more jaunty songs of the night’s set. Clark played “The Guitar Man” as light and nonchalant R&B with Jon Deas providing loopy synthesizer effects, while “When I’m Gone” called on Clark to lay out a blues shuffle riff as the guitar intro. Both songs featured Clark switching from rugged vocals to a gorgeous falsetto that matched the tenderness of the band’s melody.

Clark swapped his guitar with a roadie, who passed on a Gibson SG.

“Alright if I play some rock ‘n’ roll for you?” Clark asked.

He turned up the gain on his guitar so that a crackling emitted from his amp for a version of “Low Down Rolling Stone” — the blues-to-the-core selection off his 2012 debut “Blak and Blu.” While Clark’s technical expertise on strings gave him the role as the band’s conductor, his sidemen — Johnny Bradley on bass and King Zapata on rhythm guitar — help him pull off six- to seven-minute extended versions of his electric slow-burners. This was especially apparent in “What About Us,” a healthy blend of instrumental improvisation and lyrics that details the uprising of a new generation forcing out the old.

There goes the neighborhood, one way or another,”  Clark sang. “You can call it what you want / But the young blood’s taking over / Don’t get too comfortable, just plan on moving over.”

For the next part of the set, Clark shed the pugnacious attitude of the previous song and replaced it with another style adjustment, this time adopting a Motown soul aesthetic for “Our Love.” Clark brought back the falsetto to give the number an affectionate slow-dance vibe that quickly evolved back into an outburst of driving guitar.

“Give us the funk!” a member of the audience yelled.

“I got something for ya,” Clark replied, going straight into “Feed the Babies.”  

“The world is my buffet, child, and I’m just looking to eat,” Clark sang.

While “Feed the Babies” fulfilled Clark’s promise to bring the funk, “Feelin’ Like A Million” began with an overpowering bassline as Clark walked along the outer edge of the stage, casually taking sips from his water bottle with his guitar slung to the side. Eventually, Clark and his guitar led the song that dripped with dancehall reggae.

“Friday night and I just got paid / I’m out looking for some trouble,” Clark sang as a green-and-yellow hue fell over the Benedum.

He inhaled into the mic and asked, “Y’all good?” before taking on “Gotta Get Into Something,” which began with Clark and Zapata rapidly blasting out two chords in succession and then abruptly stopping and starting up again before finally diving into a full-fledged surf punk rhythm.

To close the regular concert set on this stop of the “This Land” tour, Clark played the two singles from his new record. The title track is a protest song that boils with fury as Clark’s lyrics weave in social commentary with references to racism and suspicion of one’s neighbors.

“Fuck you, I’m America’s son,” Clark sang. “This is where I come from.”

He transitioned back into the quaint falsetto for the other single, “Pearl Cadillac,” underscored by a brooding refrain and lyrics that described the events leading up to Clark driving away from his ex.

During this song, Clark’s figure turned back into a silhouette — the outline of a man with his hands crossed over a v-shape guitar.

It’s a little unorthodox for an artist to end on a slower, de-escalated note before the encore, but this doesn’t sell Gary Clark Jr. short at all. He is, after all, a man of many talents.

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