Every decade it seems the blues world ordains new saviors and torchbearers, bands or guitar slingers who will keep the genre alive by attracting a younger audience. Gary Clark Jr. bears that mantle these days.
Tuesday night in the thick summer swelter at Crossroads KC, Clark, 30, and his three-piece band drew a crowd of more than 1,200, many of whom appeared to be his age and younger. For two hours, he gave them a showcase of the blues in several styles and origins, from Chicago and Texas to the Mississippi Delta.
His set list comprised 19 songs and included covers of several blues masters, plus tracks from “Blak and Blu,” his major label debut, now 2 years old. Early on it favored straight blues numbers, like the raw and percussive “Next Door Neighbor Blues,” one of his own, and his slow-burning cover of Albert Collins’ “If Trouble Was Money.” He changed the mood abruptly with “Travis County,” a juke-jumping pop tune with a Chuck Berry vibe.
Clark can be an incendiary guitarist when he chooses, and there were plenty of fireworks all night: salvos of notes and chords delivered at high speed and in high volume, then splintering and climaxing almost libidinously into a seismic resolution, as he did on “When My Train Pulls In” and then the psychedelic rock-blues bomb “Numb.”
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He consistently avoids cliches, keeping things fresh by taking unexpected stops, turns and twists. But he is most compelling when exercising austerity, playing in the service of the song and its mood and not merely for the sake of flash and thunder, as he did on songs like his cover of “3 O’Clock Blues,” a tribute to B.B King. Throughout the show, he bared his roots and influences, including King, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Freddie King and Jimi Hendrix, imparting his own techniques upon them.
His guitar playing can overshadow his voice, which is as strong as it is nimble. On his Grammy-winning song “Please Come Home,” the first of several honeyed soul tunes, he showed off his agile falsetto, one that can evoke the sounds of taproot Philadelphia soul. Later, on the groovy, midtempo “Things Are Changin’,” he veered into satiny R&B.
The first set ended with “Blak and Blu,” another seductive soul ballad, then exploded into “Bright Lights.” That one incited a small stampede from the back of the venue toward the stage by a horde of fans who’d been calling for it all night.
After that, the crowd beckoned him back out for more, and he delivered a four-song encore, including a solo version of “In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down),” then “Honest I Do,” a tribute to Jimmy Reed. He closed with another heavy, feedback-drenched guitar storm: “Third Stone From the Sun/If You Love Me Like You Say.” By then, the crowd in back had started filing out, having had its fill of salvation from an evangelist who practices what he preaches.
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Catfish Blues; Ain’t Messin’ ’Round; Next Door Neighbor Blues; If Trouble Was Money; Travis County; When My Train Pulls In; Please Come Home; Don’t Owe You a Thang; Numb; 3 O’Clock Blues; Things Are Changin’; You Saved Me; Blak and Blu; Bright Lights. Encore: In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down); Honest I Do; Third Stone From the Sun; If You Love Me Like You Say.