Wednesday June 13
FIRST NIGHT! ACL Live & C3 Presents bring you Gary Clark Jr.
“Come Together” was never the most sensical song in the Beatles’ catalog, but when John Lennon wrote one line in the last verse — “He got muddy water, he one mojo filter” — maybe he was having a prophetic moment. Almost four decades later, that rock classic has been covered for the Justice League soundtrack by Gary Clark Jr., a man who assuredly has a lot of Muddy Waters in him, and who’s got his mojo filter working full-time, transforming the greatest, most time-tested tropes of traditional American music into the blazing-est rock and roll this side of a Jimi Hendrix bonfire.
There’s another line amid the lyrical insanity of “Come Together” that feels apropos, too: “He just do what he please.” That befits Clark, a one-time teen prodigy of Austin’s roots music scene who’s gone on in his 20s and early 30s to embrace the widest possible world of music. Even as he remains the best young distiller the blues could have asked for, purism is the last thing on his mind. “My whole foundation is based in blues, and that’s what I have a reputation for doing,” says Clark. “But I’ve always been somebody who said that I don’t know what to expect of myself, so you shouldn’t expect anything from me. I’ll hear some comments from people who say stuff to me when I go back home: ‘Hey, just play blues’ or ‘Hey, just do this.’ But as a human being, and somebody who doesn’t want to stay in the same place, to not experiment and explore and try to discover new things would be a waste of time for me, personally. I’m curious.”
So, naturally, when he got a call asking if he’d be interested in collaborating with electronically inclined producer Junkie XL on a transformative remake of “Come Together,” he showed up. This was even though, on the initial approach, they wouldn’t tell him what it was for, everything having to do with Justice League being top-secret at that point, even to possible soundtrack participants. “I knew they were working on something, but I wasn’t privy to the information yet,” Clark recalls. “They wanted me to be a part of it, so it was like, ‘You’re great, but we don’t quite trust you.’ It’s all good, though,” he laughs. He was happy enough when he learned just what franchise he was to be affiliated with: “When I found out that I wouldn’t grow up to be Batman, I was a little bit disappointed. So to get to play a Beatles song in a movie with that, it’s pretty cool. And my son thinks I’m cool.”
In concert now, with his own band, Clark plays a more straightforward version of “Come Together”: “With four guys on stage, we’re gonna strip it down and have it adapt to our situation that’s comfortable, not switch it up too much and bring synthesizers out and all kinds of crazy stuff. But part of the fun in the studio is all the things you can do in the studio. I was up for doing something new, too, and collaborating with somebody, especially Junkie XL,” says Clark, who admits he did some catch-up work on the producer/DJ’s work before going into the studio. Junkie XL may still be best known for his update of Elvis Presley’s “A Little More Conversation” in 2002, knew that bringing “Come Together” back into the public consciousness couldn’t entail a mere remix. He needed Clark, a guitar hero fit to stand tall amid movie superheroes, and a singer who can find newfound soulfulness even in a late ‘60s fever dream. The result is a total rewiring: “Abbey Road” meets Tobacco Road, meeting today’s music of the street.
It would be foolish to assume that Junkie XL had to drag Clark kicking and screaming into an exercise in genre cross-pollination. Clark may not be in any danger of making an EDM album, but he is working with a pair of rappers, his old Austin friends Zeale and Phranchyse, on some new material. He sees this less as a departure than an extension of what he’s always done, or at least how he’s always thought.
“No, no, no,” he laughs, when asked if anything about Junkie XL’s approach to making the track took him aback. “It goes along with growing up in Austin and running around down on 6th Street, just being exposed to everything. I had friends who are just musically creative people, and it didn’t matter what genre; it was young folks excited about making noise and creating something, and we all just wanted to kind of hang out and vibe together. So I was listening to electronic music, to blues, jazz, country, folk, rap. I would have rappers at my house and Chris Layton (the drummer for Stevie Ray Vaughan’s Double Trouble) at my house.” When it came to the dividing lines of genre, “I didn’t really think much about it. So when I step into any sort of situation, I feel like I know what’s up, a little bit, and how to approach things.”
Clark had a heady 2017 even before it climaxed with the worldwide promotion of “Come Together.” In February, he was widely praised as a standout among standouts at the MusiCares benefit honoring Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers, where first he joined the Foo Fighters, huge fans who’ve taken Clark out as their opening act. Later he returned to the stage for his own singular Petty salute, which Rolling Stone described as “a molten meditation on the lowdown blues song ‘Good Enough,’ stretching out on a closing solo that would have marked a star-making performance if he wasn't one already.” The summer found another longtime Clark fan, Eric Clapton, invited him to open on his run of 50th anniversary shows at Madison Square Garden and L.A.’s Forum. The season also saw the release of Chuck Berry’s final album — a record that had the most influential rock guitarist of all time ceding way on just one track for a solo from just one guest…Clark, of course. In the fall, Bob Marley’s family asked him to be the one to sing “No Woman, No Cry” at an “Exodus 40” tribute show in L.A. (Clark, being a pretty big fanboy in his own right, talks less about his own performance than watching the others, like “Tom Morello — I was freaking out, watching him do all his bad-ass stuff over mellow reggae grooves. That dude’s a freak of nature.”)
A year with those kinds of sit-in spots might have gone to his head if he wasn’t pretty well used to that all-star appreciation by now. Clark hadn’t even yet released his debut for Warner Bros., 2012’s Blak and Blu, when he was asked by Alicia Keys to co-write and play guitar on “Fire We Make,” a song from her Girl on Fire album. That experience was “pretty new to me, and I didn’t know what to expect, but it exceeded my expectations,” he says. Keys turned out to be one of Clark’s biggest boosters, in interviews and on social media… though she might have some competition in the boosterism department from the Rolling Stones, who’ve repeatedly enlisted him as an opening act and on-stage guest. He played for the Obamas at the White House alongside not just Mick Jagger but B.B. King, Jeff Beck, and Buddy Guy. On a prime-time tribute to the Beatles, he performed alongside Dave Grohl and Joe Walsh. On a similar TV tribute to Stevie Wonder, he teamed up with Beyoncé and Ed Sheeran. On record, he co-wrote and played guitar on Childish Gambino’s “The Night Me and Your Mama Met.” He’s also played on or co-written recordings by Sheryl Crow, The-Dream, Tech N9nes, and ZZ Ward (the latter a contribution to 2017’s Cars 3 soundtrack).
“Come Together,” then, isn’t just a song title for Clark… it’s a collaborative way of being. “It’s pretty heavy to think of a 12-year-old kid watching TV in Texas playing with Clapton and on Buddy Guy’s album and Chuck Berry’s record,” he says. “It’s a trip. I’m grateful. Somebody’s looking out for me or something.”
Mind you, when Clark refers back to watching TV, he’s not talking about a childhood addiction to sitcoms. It was music TV, and not even so much MTV. “I kind of got introduced to everything by watching Austin City Limits, which had Clapton, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Bonnie Raitt, Jimmy Vaughan, Robert Cray. It all kind of hit me at once, and I just loved anything that sounded bluesy or rock & roll that felt dangerous and had loud guitar solos up front. Ultimately I figured out where it all came from, and I think the thing that really resonated with me was guys like Albert King and Freddie King — the three Kings,” along with B.B. Soon, as a barely-teen prodigy, he was making his way out in to the real world, being mentored by Austin club owner Clifford Antone as he hooked up with every available local legend. “I like to think I would have still gotten on the same path,” he says, “but unfortunately, we’ve lost a lot of the blues guys that I was able to be around when I was younger, so there’s not that direct influence, Pinetop Perkins isn’t around anymore. James Cotton isn’t around anymore.”
Clark won’t be going anywhere for a while, at least, and he remains the great living link between Hubert Sumlin and Childish Gambino.
As for his most recent album, Live/North America 2016, released in March 2016, that was not just a stopgap between his last studio release, 2015’s The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, and whatever comes next. “Some of my favorite albums of all time are live albums,” he points out. “Songs can take a different direction based on how the audience responds and how the band is feeling. They might switch things up, and it keeps it exciting. That walking the tightrope is something I’ve always respected in jazz, too — how somebody like Coltrane or Miles Davis or Billy Morgan can just take it out and then reel it back in, even though you’re gone.”
Maybe that’s as good a way as any to describe the appeal of Clark’s own playing, and the “danger” he says he looks for — taking a solo out until it’s gone, daddy, gone, only to let the music return to sender with the reassuring sound of his honey-thick vocals. Or, as John Lennon might’ve put it: “He roller-coaster.” In Clark’s dynamic musical world, combustible tension and exquisite release are the things that truly come together.