Album Review: Gary Clark Jr – The Story of Sonny Boy Slim

Gary Clark Jr The Story of Sonny Boy Slim cover art
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I’ve seen Clark play on both his visits to NZ. The first time he opened for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at Vector Arena in 2013. It was only a four-song set, but it was enough to blow me away. When he came back to our shores earlier this year he proved once again that he is a musical force to be reckoned with.

There was never a question of whether The Story of Sonny Boy Slim was going to be good. Gary Clark Jr has the midas touch of the guitaring world. The question was whether he would be able to capture his sensational live energy on his sophomore studio full-length.

The problem was that his Black and Blu album wasn’t comparable to his stage sound. The dirty rawness got lost in the production. The songs were good, but didn’t allow the true brilliance to shine through.

Before I discuss the music, I must note that this album is visually stunning. I bought the 2LP gatefold vinyl and the art is great, with a contrasting colour scheme of red, yellow and black. The best aspect is side D, which features the scene from inside the gatefold laser-etched onto the disc.

Side D, with laser etchings of the picture from inside the gatefold

Side D, with laser etchings of the picture from inside the gatefold

Clark has taken more control over this second album. No co-writers are credited this time round. He also dominates with the instrumentation, playing bass, keyboards and drums as well as the expected vocals and guitar. This would suggest that the record could sound more clinical, having been recorded in so many separate takes. But it doesn’t. And kudos to Clark for having the ability to pull off the work that usually requires a full band. He roped in some mates to help out at times, including saxophone, horns, organ, piano, and flute to flesh out the sound.

The Story of Sonny Boy Slim is also a bit of a family affair. Clark’s fiance Nicole Trunfio and son Zion feature in the intro of ‘Hold On’, and his sisters Shawn and Savannah provide backing vocals on a three tracks.

Speaking of intros, the start of first track ‘The Healing’ has an odd little pre-amble that sounds like something Son House would sing. It’s not a strong introduction to the album, but it does foreshadow that this album is more of a nod to older styled blues.

‘Grinder’ is the designated crowd pleaser – the rock number with the obligatory guitar solos the whole way through. But The Story of Sonny Boy Slim is not an rock record (surprising, considering that the release date coincides with the commencement of a tour supporting rock titans Foo Fighters). Instead most of the songs sit back in the groove. This is the album that requires being in the moment. There’s no hurry. There doesn’t need to be.

Take, for example, ‘Star’. It has skanking guitar and falsetto singing riding upon a delicious bassline. It stays strong and steady the whole way through.

Some of the stand out tracks include ‘Hold On’ – a more ballsy song that features a horn mantra and squealing guitars; ‘Wings’ -which showcases Tameca Jones as the amazing guest vocalist who sings above the infectious syncopated snare patterns; and ‘Can’t Sleep’ – with more squealing guitars and a bouncing beat.

We hear nod’s to the inspirations from the past in the Motown-sounding ‘BYOB’, and the ho-down that is ‘Shake’ goes full-vintage with prominent slide guitar. Harmonica and organs and brass instruments all feature heavily throughout the album, too, giving a New Orleans flavour.

Final track ‘Down to Ride’ is like ‘You Saved Me’ version 2: the longer hazy extended jam. It takes me back to when I saw Clark play last, drinking in the soulful tunes in a hazy, dimly lit venue.

Clark is no longer the promising young guitarist from Austin who needs to impress and make a name for himself. He has proven himself already, so now he can sit back and play music for his own satisfaction. And taking a more personal approach may have reduced the sell-ability of the album, but it also lifted the overall quality and cohesiveness. He doesn’t need the co-writers, the producers or show-off songs. His songwriting is strong enough that he can let the music sell itself. This is an album designed as a whole, rather than a collection of singles.

Listen to ‘Church’ (featured above), a track that Clark previewed at his Wellington show earlier in the year. It’s nothing flashy. Hell, it’s straight up basic. But there’s something that I can’t quite pick that makes it utterly electrifying.

If you’re after the next Hendrix, then this album will disappoint. But if you are happy to settle for some stunning blues, saturated in a relaxed vibe and some thrilling instrumentation, then this will suffice. And of course the guitar playing is still brilliant.

Clark is Sonny Boy Slim. This is his autobiography. And it’s well worth a listen.

Joseph James

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