This substantial slice of blues-rock dirt is of a high enough quality to bring Gary Clarke Jr into prominence as a rising star of the new era in guitar based music. Having played with big names at Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Festival, as well as performing for Mr Obama himself, Clarke certainly has a valuable address book, but does this album work?
Ain’t Messin’ Around, the opening track, certainly does what it says on the tin. It gets straight to the point, with big brass sounds and toe-tapping rhythms galore. Think Black Crowes and Cage the Elephant, and you’re on the right track. Clarke’s voice compliments the fuzzy guitars well, adding a smooth quality to the song.
The guitar solos on this album are a particular highlight. Clarke doesn’t cut the figure of a musical virtuoso in the way that Joe Bonamassa may be in this style, but rather a rough and ready, home grown talent. When My Train Pulls In features what, in my ears at least, is the best solo of the album. Fuzzy, dirty and played with emotion over technicality, the guitar work featured here really fits, and is far from the contrived playing of heavier bands. Put simply, these 8 minutes of music is why I love blues.
The title track, Blak and Blu, along with a couple of others (The Life, for example), are where the album falls short of the mark. All of the raw, authentic power of the music is drained and replaced by a hip hop/R&B sound. To get this straight, I still think these tunes are pretty good, and, as always, Clarke’s voice is smooth and relaxing, but do they fit in with this album of blues and rock? The addition of a crying baby here made me increasingly confused. I’m all for sampling, but I have no idea what extra texture or timbre it gave the music.
To me, the inclusion of these tracks spoiled the continuity of the album somewhat, which made it feel like a large collection of songs that were thrown on an album, rather than a handpicked selection of top quality tunes.
From there onwards, the album follows the same format. Big riffs and punchy songs are rife, and soothed effectively by songs such as Please Come Home, a Motown-influenced ballad of love and loss, with enough individuality to prevent it sounding like an Etta James duplicate. Very tastefully done.
And so the album rolls on, with Clarke displaying his own record collection through his playing – Travis County shows his love of Chuck Berry, Next Door Neighbour Blues being more Robert Johnson influenced. At its best, this album really is a fine display of blues songwriting.
In summary, this album is well worth a listen. My only reservation is the addition of some questionable turns in style. Hearing some of these songs is like hearing Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk after listening to Rumours, it just doesn’t feel right. I think Clarke has the potential to be a blues rock guitarist on the same stage as Joe Bonamassa et al, I just didn’t feel as convinced as I was hoping to.