Back in town after a blazing Farm Aid performance back in September, Clark didn’t have anything new to promote other than his lightning chops.
Though a posh art museum amphitheater seems a long way from the Mississippi Delta, Raleigh’s hell-on-Earth heat made the birthplace of the blues feel not so far away. With temperatures pushing near 100 degrees at showtime and air thick enough to swim through, the atmosphere felt more like they sitting in a sweltering roadhouse than a venue serving Chardonnay. The heat wave pounding North Carolina without any end in sight likely made Austin-native Gary Clark, Jr. feel right at home, as other than the sweat continuously dripping from his chin, he made nary a mention of it, and completely erased any distractions from the minds of the crowd by straight ripping variations of Texas and Chicago blues along with some excursions that were grounded in the genre.
Back in town after a blazing Farm Aid performance back in September, Clark didn’t have anything new to promote other than his lightning chops. If this sold-out show was any indication, he certainly picked up a few fans that night, filling the mostly natural space at every corner, even beside the stage and at angles with impossible sightlines. Though a ferocious storm ended up cutting the night short after a little over an hour, sending everyone to shelter inside the museum as vendor tents flipped and crashed, few likely felt as though they didn’t get their money’s worth.
Performing in a much larger shed than they’re accustomed to in front of an audience they needed to earn, opening Toronto/Austin duo Black Pistol Fire came out with a purpose and went home with virtually an entire theater’s worth of supporters. The comparisons to early Black Keys and White Stripes are inevitable and accurate, but they take the influences of Junior Kimbrough and Son House and add the funkier side of Jimmy Page and the garage-ness of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, especially live. The effort and energy was not lost on the mostly capacity crowd already waiting for them, as frontman Kevin McKeown must’ve left the stage in a pool of sweat, as he was never still and often waded out into the pit with moves that didn’t feel at all contrived. With a 45-minute set that included mostly originals from their latest release, Hush or Howl, and filthy, muddy teases of Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” Zeppelin’s “The Lemon Song” and a full electric blues take on Neil Young’s “Ohio,” these guys have taken the last of whatever riffs have yet to be played in this world.
Thanks to Black Pistol Fire, the stage was certainly set by the time Clark stepped out in a black T-shirt with his fedora tilted to one side. With the Stripes gone and the Keys doing whatever it is they do now, there is really no one playing the blues at this level like Clark, seemingly allowing the music to effortlessly pass through him. Whether it was his slide work that scorched like the lightning in the distance or his scuttling Chuck Berry boogie, Clark took the blues everywhere possible. The slow, menacing burn of “Catfish Blues” segued effortlessly into the jagged trills of “When My Train Pulls In,” as Clark stalked the stage with a swampy, backwoods solo. Still, it was the most straightforward thing that he played that ended up the highlight of the night. With its jazzy, clean tone and distorted lead lines that dropped like tears from Clark’s guitar, “If Trouble Was Money” came across as something that wouldn’t be unheard of from fellow Austin natives, Double Trouble.
People, of course, came to hear Clark shred, but his songs should not be overlooked. Though Blak and Blu, his 2012 major-label debut irked some for lacking cohesion, onstage it works as he demonstrates he’s no one-trick pony. After starting with the slick groove of “Bright Lights” and promising, “You’re gonna know my name by the end of the night,” Clark dabbled with the Traffic-y “Ain’t Messin ‘Round,” uncorking a wah-drenched solo for the ages. Still, he’s able to do sexy just as easy as he can get dirty, dripping soul from “Hold On” with a stunning falsetto while incorporating elements of hip-hop and funk, and culminating with a “Texas Flood”-sized solo. A new gospel-y cut, perhaps called “This Is Our Love,” illustrated a potential new and exciting direction for Clark, but it was the smooth doo-wop soul of “Please Come Home” that proved he’s every bit the crooner as he is the bluesman. Though his falsetto here is more Curtis Mayfield than Muddy Waters, everything for Clark always comes back to the blues, as his mournful leads demonstrated before seemingly setting off a torrential lightning storm that only grew with intensity as he played until the show was called shortly thereafter.
After Clark’s teaser Farm Aid set, it would have been great to hear him truly stretch out without the burden of a condensed time slot. He was just getting warmed up by the time the storm quickly set in and the delay was announced from the stage with the hope that any danger would pass. Unfortunately, curfew came and went before there was any hope of Clark resuming. Clark himself tweeted that the band wasn’t done and that a redo is in order, and judging from the reaction to his all-too-brief performance on this night, everyone in attendance will be waiting in anticipation. After all, a storm of that caliber was the only thing that could cool him off.