Are you experienced? In 1967, Jimi Hendrix posed this simple question, and from it, summoned up a fierce, reverberant squall that, four decades removed from his untimely passing, remains unanswered.
Though the recent rise of Austin guitarist Gary Clark, Jr. may merit as much, his surge should not be mistaken for Hendrix’s second coming. Despite sparking waves of comparisons, Clark’s 4-song, 2011 The Bright Lights EP is light years removed from the blues-based psychedelia and feedback-fueled freak-outs of Hendrix’s legendary debut. Where Jimi sent spirals off into the far regions of space, Gary’s booming barrage brings everything back to the barroom. Atop the ferocious riffage of its title track, he etches his mark, growling, “You gonna know my name by the end of the night.” The recoil is strong enough to create a groundswell, and his playing, as powerful as anyone who’s ever plugged in.
Clark’s upbringing was humble and his pedigree, hard-won. As a teenager growing up in the Texas capital, he picked up guitar from neighborhood pal and soon-to-be Austin icon Eve Monsees. The pair began cutting their teeth in the city’s fertile music scene. Clark cites a jam session that occurred at Babe’s on Sixth Street for Monsees’ 15th birthday as one of the defining musical experiences in his life: “[It] hooked me on doing the whole live thing.”
Soon after that set, Clark began his ascent, initially climbing the ranks with Jimmie Vaughan, and later, catching the ear of early-Hendrix admirer and friend Eric Clapton. At Slowhand’s 2010 Crossroads Guitar Festival, a still relatively unknown Clark delivered a short-but-incendiary performance that captivated the stadium crowd. By the time the T-shirt-and-jeans-clad axeman struck his final chord, ripples of electricity had transformed into roars of excitement. He didn’t need to light his guitar on fire to make a statement. His arrival was long overdue.
Today, Clark’s explosive licks and palpable intensity resonate with fans across the globe, and his reputation precedes him. With a string of summer festival slots on the horizon and speculation about his highly anticipated major label debut swirling, Hendrix comparisons continue to get kicked around. But Clark’s no astral alchemist; he’s a frontiersman, breaking ground and bringing the experience full circle: “Music is movement,” he says, “It all moves together, like lifetimes—a continuum. It’s all part of the same fabric in the end.”
Gary Clark, Jr. plays Jazz Fest on Sunday, April 29 at 4:30 p.m. in the Blues Tent.