The Story of Sonny Boy Slim Gary Clark Jr Warner
★★★ 1/2 Soon after he cracked the mainstream blues/ R&B world, Austin guitarist-songwriter Gary Clark Jr became known for his use of distortion. While this effect infused his playing with an instant Delta grit it, soon became stale, muffling his true capabilities.
Thankfully on this album it’s largely absent and, with this sonic weight lifted, some beautifully upbeat compositions emerge. The standout is Cold Blooded, a story about a playboy getting caught in his own trap. Its slinking bassline and descending horns echo Curtis Mayfield at his peak. Showing a maturity beyond his 31 years, Clark, just as Mayfield often did, leaves his solo somewhat buried in the mix because he knows the slight reverb will build the requisite drama. “I can hold my own,” he sings. “I’m cold blooded.” The lyric may belong to a jilted lover but it could apply to Clark’s playing.
Another highlight is Church, a pared-back acoustic gospel song kicked along by a rousing harmonica line. Such a combination reminds you of Ben Harper but the similarities fade when you hear Clark’s voice. It’s smoother and conveys a wider range of emotion.
Indeed, when Clark first made the scene it was thought he would become the next great black guitar slinger. But those looking for wailing blues runs will be disappointed. This is a laidback album that is happy to explore genres. Clark’s love of hip-hop is clear in the opening track, The Healing, but by the end he has turned his lamp down low.
The opening bars of Down to Ride are reminiscent of Jeff Buckley’s 1998 slow-burner Everybody Here Wants You, and again cement Clark’s reputation as much more than a blues troubadour.