Clark was stunning when he played Wellington in May. He previewed a few new tracks that had me excited for the forthcoming album. and the wait was worth it. Clark made this album on his own terms, and you can hear the difference when you compare it to his promising, yet lacking, début album. The album presentation is also stunning, including a cool etching on side D of the gatefold 2LP vinyl edition.
I didn’t make time to review these, but the following three are also well worth a listen
Caspian – Dust and Disquiet.
Post-rockers Caspian were once one of those bands that started quiet and slowly built up throughout the song. They have really turned it up a notch with Dust and Disquiet, with heavier songs that demand attention.
Refused – Freedom.
The hardcore legends have made a comeback. It’s not Shape of Punk to Come, but it’s still awesome. They’re due to play in Wellington, and in Auckland at Westfest next year, and I really hope that this still happens in light of the Australian Soundwave Festival cancellations.
Third Eye Blind – Dopamine.
One of the quintessential 90’s bands prove that they’re still current with this upbeat rock album.
Of course, there were many more albums and EPs that deserve a mention. Have a browse through our album reviews to see what else Will Not fade covered this year. Which albums did you listen to the most this year?
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
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 songssit 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.
A few years ago my friend Sam and I flew up to Auckland for a few concerts at Vector Arena. The first show was Weezer playing their first album (known as the “Blue Album”) in its entirety. A few nights later Red Hot Chili Peppers played at the same venue . It was a great trip and both shows were awesome. The standout band though, was Gary Clark Jr, one of the acts who opened for the Chilis.
I’d never listened to him beforehand, but Clark and his band caught my attention straight away. He was something else. So smooth. So slick. He had a swagger about him that just reeked of cool. They only played four songs, but that was more than enough to make a lasting impression.
When I got home I immediately looked him up and started accumulating his music. My girlfriend bought the Black and Blu LP for me. I ordered a Gary Clark Jr/ Son House split from Daytrotter. There was a mixtape hosted at datpiff that featured a more hip-hop flavour. He also featured on a catchy little Cody ChesnuTT b-side.
[ChesnuTT was my other musical discovery that year. I saw him play in Wellington on his birthday and he was outstanding.]
Since then I’ve noticed Clark pop up here and there, slowly gaining popularity. There was a cameo on the film Chef, and a Foo Fighters collaboration on the album/television series Sonic Highways.
And now finally he has returned to New Zealand to headline his own shows, as an extension of the Byron Bay Bluesfest.
This was my first time in Shed 6 since it has been refurbished as an alternative to the Wellington Town Hall. It was a similar size to Town Hall, and didn’t seem to suffer from the terrible acoustics that neighbouring venue TSB Arena is so notorious for.
No support act had been announced, so I was pleased to recognise Aaron Tokona (Cairo Knife Fight, Ahoribuzz) when he graced the stage. He opened his set with “Calling On”, the biggest single from his 90’s rock band Weta. For the ensuing half an hour, Tokona noodled around on his guitar and messed with his effect pedals, displaying his mastery over his instrument. It’s hard to say who enjoyed the set more out of Tokona and the audience, because he was clearly having a ball onstage. He strummed and plucked and tapped as he gyrated around. He even sheepishly took a selfie in front of the crowd. “I’ve never done this before” he confessed, “but all my mates do it.”
Aaron’s selfie, taken from his Facebook page
“Now I can show my 13-year-old daughter that I’m cool!” he grinned after taking the snap.There was no telling how much of his set was rehearsed or spontaneous, but Tokona managed to impress and entertain us with his abilities.
[Keith Stanfield from Moors is one of the actors in this clip. He also features in the latest Run The Jewels video. Keep an eye on him, because I’m picking Stanfield to become the next big thing.]
Gary Clark Jr and his band were sublime. The highlight of the set for me was “When My Train Pulls In”. I got so excited from the first note. There was a familiar light strum to check the tuning, and he started building feedback and the drummer washed up his cymbals, before a pause, and then that riff. That riff that is so laid back, so groovy. It sounded so effortless. It was nirvana. It was only about four songs into the set, but after that song I could have happily left satisfied.
Not that I needed to leave. The following song, “Don’t Owe You A Thing”, really bumped the energy up, before Clark lowered the mood with “Please Come Home”. And both songs were great. Every song was great, truth be told. Ballad or anthem, cover or original, the musicians on stage all played exceptionally well and left the audience awestruck.
There was a sound that permeated the set – a dirty, raw blues vibe. Although it’s a great record, Black and Blu sounded overly polished. It was too sedate and clean to capture the true essence of the songs. But in a live setting the songs come to life. Most songs were long and drawn out with endless solos.
Clark opened the set with a slide on his finger, and finished with devastating solo and feedback. And in every song between he proved why he has a guitar legend status. It’s not hard to see why all the Hendrix comparisons get made. Clark even covered a Hendrix song, “Third Stone From The Sun”. He scratched up and down the string, making DJ noises, and messed with the tempo by having the band gradually speed up before reverting back to the original speed.
The encore was an unreleased love song (from the forthcoming album) that Clark played solo. It seemed basic compared to many of the other songs, but it seemed to cast a spell over the crowd. He followed with “Black and Blu”, before his band mates joined him for a stunning rendition of the closing song “Bright Lights”
This was the gig that I had most been looking forward to all year. And it more than surpassed my expectations. Not only was the opening act Aaron Tokona thoroughly entertaining, but Clark and his band put on a such a stellar two-hour set of soulful bluesy rock that I can’t help but rave about how good it was. It was slick, yet laid back. Impressive, but seemingly effortless. Clark and his boys have the skills to wow. If you get the chance to see them play, do. They won’t disappoint.