Gary Clark Jr.: Express LIVE; Columbus, OH; Tuesday, November 9, 2021
Before the lights went down and Gary Clark Jr. led his band to the stage of Express LIVE in Columbus on Tuesday night, it became clear as the roadies were setting tuned guitars into stands, turning on the guitar amps, checking levels on drums, etc., that the scheduled opening act, Blackillac, a hip hop group associated with Clark, was a no show. Nobody seemed to mind at all, when Clark took the stage, the drummer began stirring up a low rumbling sound before Clark played some sturdy opening crunchy power chords on his semi-hollow bodied, f-hole Les Paul guitar, and the slow groove of “Bright Lights” opened the show, from his 2012 major label debut, “Blak and Blu.” The standout line states that “you’ll know my name by the end of the night,” and clearly Clark intended to use his first post-pandemic tour to reintroduce his music to rock and blues music fans.
While no doubt aware that many of those in the crowd came primarily to witness Clark’s stellar electric blues guitar skills, well established through televised performances on the yearly Grammy’s, including winning awards for “Best Contemporary Blues Album,” as well as “Best Rock Song” and “Best Rock Performance” in 2020 for his “This Land” record and its title track, Clark’s set emphasized his emphasized his sophisticated R&B/pop songs, slowly building toward the anticipation in the audience. Much of the repertoire for Clark’s 90-minute set were indeed drawn from his last album, the auspicious 2019 release, This Land, , which made number 1 on my best of year list, but Clark chose not to play the title track single and first video from the disc, and focused instead on more of his soul singer falsetto vocals for “What About Us” and “I Walk Alone,” giving the crowd brief glimpses of the guitar heroics in brief solos that hinted at what was to come.
“When I’m Gone” emphasized Clark’s R&B leanings, with harmony vocals that hinted at influences like the Temptations. Reaching back to his 2015 release, Sonny Boy Slim, Clark and the band flirted with reggae for “Cold Blooded,” where Clark’s guitar tones leaned toward the bright, jazzy playing of George Benson, with a bit of skat blending on the song’s melody, Clark letting his solos develop and grow in length. He moved to a white Stratocaster for another pop/R&B number from that second major label release, this time delivering a solo that opened with single notes crying out in a way familiar from B.B. King’s playing, before Clark delivered a long, blistering blues solo that stirred the crowd up in response.
Clark returned to his Les Paul, which opened “Feed the Babies” with a big bluesy vamp, and then switched to a Gibson flying-V for “You Saved Me,” with big grungy power chords over top of some quick bouncy piano playing from John Deas. Perhaps egged on by the crowd’s response when he strapped on that particular edgy-looking rock guitar, Clark offered up his longest solo of the evening, starting with short repeated bursts of sound, which grew to longer, lightning fast runs, his fingers moving quickly on the frets of the guitar neck. At one point, he tossed his guitar pick into the crowd, and then fingered the high strings with his smaller fingers, adding to the emotional feel of his solo.
If they hinted at a reggae rhythm earlier, they embraced a big rockin’ island feel for “Feelin’ Like a Million,” where second guitarist King Zapata played through a wah-wah to build the rhythm, while Clark’s solo angular solo seemed to be cutting against the grain with a rock feel. “Low Down Rolling Stone” proved that instruments hard rockin’ virtues in the big riff intro, with Deas providing the appropriate undercurrent swells on his Hammond organ, before offering up a fun call & response solo on his synthesizer, responding to the drummer’s funky beat, before a return to the opening riff brought the song to its conclusion. Now, I say “drummer” because the photo of Clark’s band on his website lists JJ Johnson over a picture of what appears to be a Black brother with hair and a beard on drums. On Tuesday night, it was a white guy with a shaved head, which could have been the same guy given the lighting on the photo… but also, maybe not. Whoever he was the drummer appeared to be hitting his snare hard enough to break the head, as he was busily working to replace it at several points in the show.
“I Got My Eyes on You” was a return to that earlier jazzy sound, over a stark beat from the drummer and that sturdy Hammond organ filling the sound out. Second guitarist Zapata played another rock oriented solo, before Clark came in with a dominating howl from his guitar. While the drummer was switching out his snare yet again, Clark filled the moment with brief bluesy scales from his Paul, but sure they were ready for the album’s climax, Clark played the opening notes of “When My Train Pulls In,” another track from “Blak and Blu” and a concert favorite on live albums, the crowd let out a cheer. The 10-plus minute rendering did not disappoint, with an opening grinding rhythm fueled a solo salvo from Zapata, then bassist Elijah Ford took a brief bass moment with the drummer establishing the beat before Clark kicked off his solo making “clucking” chicken sounds with his guitar, but then building his note by note of sweet guitar sounds, up to fast lightning runs mirrored by the strobe lights fast blinking.
Clark had a laidback demeanor throughout the evening, smiling at fans’ responses, and pointing to different parts of the audience and individuals, but let his music do the talking as he led his quintet from the stage. They returned after the roadies had restored order to the stage, switched out the snare again, and tuned to obvious guitars, with Clark again going back to his early major label debut for “Things Are Changin’,” which started with Clark finger-picking his guitar in the folk style, before the song slid into a gentle pop rhythm with fans clapping along, delivered with gentle piano and strummed guitars with not so much as a brief solo.
The second encore was on the nose, “The Guitar Man,” another R&B leaning pop number, with Clark taking a brief bright, jazzy solo, and then Deas playing around with a vocoder, singing the songs title repeatedly through his synthesizer technology, a novelty act at best, but pleased the crowd. But then to close out the night, Clark returned to his flying V, finger picking in an older rootsier blues style, for “Don’t Owe You a Thang,” which dates back to an early “Bright Lights” EP and has been a longtime concert favorite on live recordings. Zapata took the first solo again, playing slide guitar, with Clark quieting the band for an extended solo in the traditional old school blues vein, a smart, full-circle turn to finish up a fine night of blues, rock, pop & R&B from the unconfined, genre-expanding, musical mind of Gary Clark Jr.