Review Summary: Standing at a crossroads, Gary Clark Jr. takes the right path and cuts the best most eye catching blues record of the year.
The high stakes involved with the release of The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, the second album from Austin’s blues prophet, Gary Clark Jr., can best be described through the stories of two of his fellow blues musicians, two if his idols in fact, Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy. Both guitar heroes, both beloved figures of rock lore, both downright godsends to the musical world. The history of Rock & Roll would be a cold and dismal subject without them. If they didn’t come along any sort of music with even the slightest hint of Blues in it would be irreversibly tarnished. Imagine, no Rolling Stones, no Aerosmith, no White Stripes. Good God! I need to go listen to some Zeppelin to remind myself that this is only made up.
Okay, I’m back. Anyway these two are indispensable, but they both had vastly different career paths, (be warned, I’m about to upset some people). We all know Clapton. Old Slowhand. The guy who stared down Bruce and Baker, mentored Hendrix, stole a Beatle’s wife, and still managed to routinely crank out some of the best music of the 60s; Cream, Derek & the Dominoes, Blind Faith, etc. etc. But there’s a problem. Get that kind of acclaim and you finally get a big enough head that you start a solo career. So he did, but something changed. Gone was the great, gritty, Muddy Waters on steroids groove that he used to define 60s hard rock. More upfront now were acoustic instruments, slow jams, ballads. Later, as if he just wanted his longtime fans to feel every bit of hurt they could, he added synths. Synths!
Now of course, because fairness only happens in storybooks, these new albums made him a fortune. The guy’s probably got a greater anual income than certain sovereign nations and he owes a lot of it to those albums. But now take Buddy Guy. Same story: blues genius, worked with the best, a string of classic records, but here’s the thing, he skipped the sellout part. When the 60s ended, along with the next few decades after that, he kept on releasing great blues music. No seasoned rockers made good music in the 80s! Remember what CSNY started to sound like? Me too, sadly. Not Buddy, though. He stuck to his guns, played the music he loved, and is still going strong today at the ripe age of 79. He doesn’t quite have Clapton’s mass audience; he can’t just chill at the Royal Albert Hall for a month just cause he felt like it. However, he has the undying love and respect from millions of blues fans around the world, fans who know his refusal to compromise and commitment to making great blues music.
And now we finally arrive at present, with our bold young hero, Gary Clark Jr. The Savior of Blues Guitar, The Next Hendrix; these are other people’s nicknames for him, not mine. Clark is now at a point in his career that finds him standing at a crossroads, (pun intended). He’s worked hard, earned acclaim, jammed with all the right people like Dave Grohl, Chris Cornell, Rush, Public Enemy, and Tom Morello, and that was just one night. He’s released a well written and quite successful major label debut, and he now has a choice. He can take his new success and go the Clapton route, that is, make a more accessible sophomore album and have the thing sell like a monster, yet at the cost of his artistic soul, or go the Buddy Guy route and stay true to what makes him good in the first place.
You could see the direction he was leaning towards in the months leading up to Sonny Boy Slim’s release. First, he parted ways with Warner Bros. Records, opting instead to keep away from major labels so that they wouldn’t interfere with his vision. Then, in interviews he gave, such as the ones on the excellent Sonic Highways to series, he made glowing speeches about the greatness of soulful, barebones music and the value of artistic independence. Finally there’s that album title. Seriously, is there any bluesier sounding album title than The Story of Sonny Boy Slim?
But there was no guarantee he would pull it off. After all, the back to basic cliché has hurt many an artist in the past, even my dear beloved Iron Maiden. However, from the first notes of opener “The Healing” all fear should be put to bed. The tune sounds vibrant and fresh and moves with a confident swagger that should make other blues pretenders hang their heads in shame. Clark manages to keep the rhythm up the whole way through the song and is joined by a line of background singers to give the chorus that extra push. It’s clear already that despite the rougher approach, Clark isn’t yet ready to stop the genre bending that made his first album, Blak and Blu, resonate. If you listen hard enough, you can almost hear the start of a great hip hop song before the first verse comes in.
Sonny Boy Slim is a loose autobiographical tale that chronicles the trials and struggles of a rising musician. It could be argued that the lyrics are the most noticeable improvement since the last record. Throughout the album there is a prevailing tension that helps the music feel all the more meaningful. Clark’s protagonist, probably himself, struggles to make his talent pay off while coping with the limitations of a life that keeps trying to prevent him from realizing his potential. This, coupled with the fact that Clark now has a clear artistic vision do wonders for the album as a whole, and bring a sense of cohesion that you might have missed with Blak and Blu.
The hard edged blues, think the Sonics trying to play Albert King, keeps on through “Grinder”, the album's second track. What follows next are a pair of slow jams, but without the polished gleam of his previous softer moments like “The Life” and “Please Come Home.” These are more hard-edged and gritty. Enough so that between Clark’s tension filled moans and the Bootsy Collinsesque bass playing you can still hear the muffled screams of a guitar amp begging for its life. And yet to keep away from the simply blues by the numbers approach, Clark works in some healthy saxophone, organ, and harmonica throughout the record to ensure things stay fresh.
Good jams continue on in the albums later half in the form of the acoustic “Church” and the assertive “Hold On.” The mood keeps shifting from place to place with the absolutely gorgeous “Wings” and the totally unexpected dance number “Can’t Sleep” which you might want to hate, but just can’t for some reason. The album ends at “Down to Ride” with our leading man cruising down the road in a car with his girl beside him. He’s totally oblivious to what’s around, what’s expected of him; just moving down the road ready to take on any coming opportunities and cherish the fact that he has a talent and it means something.
Which brings us full circle. Gary Clark Jr. does have talent, and doesn’t seem to be letting it go to waste just yet. Going the lone wolf route, that is, ignoring the draws of making music that is, for lack of a better word, marketable, will hopefully bear fruit for Gary Clark. Like his hero, Buddy Guy, who because of his great talent Clark not only knows closely, but has played with on stage and on record, Clark seems poised to remain the new beacon for blues music, ensuring that it always stays in our minds and never loses that flare that made it great even back in its days in the Mississippi Delta. In this day and age we should not only cherish an album like Sonny Boy Slim, but hold on to it tightly as we see what Gary Clark Jr. has in store for us next.
Standout tracks: “The Healing,” “Cold Blooded,” “Wings,”
Skippable tracks: “Shake”