This land is his
This writer favorably described Mark Knopfler’s performance at the Santa Barbara Bowl on Sept. 20 as “all about the guitar,” but in retrospect that plaudit seems somewhat misplaced after witnessing Gary Clark Jr.’s inspired gig there on Friday night.
Promoting his latest LP, “This Land,” the 35-year-old guitar prodigy played a blinder, wowing the Bowl’s audience as he squeezed his trademark distortion from his instrument. As powerful as his guitar sounds on record, it was downright earth-shattering in a live setting.
Mr. Clark’s blindingly brilliant guitar playing arrived later in the show. The concert kicked off with an overture, with the guitarist improvising a slow, soulful solo over grand, synthesized chords courtesy of keyboardist Jon Deas.
That gave way to the plodding vamp of “Bright Lights,” which became a bit shaky when Mr. Clark started singing. His bluesy tenor voice seemed to drag a bit behind the steady beat. Fortunately, everything came back together beautifully during Mr. Clark’s hairy guitar solo that closed the opener.
His vocals became more assured on the second number, “What About Us,” the first of many songs from “This Land,” as well as the first time he brought out his falsetto. Though in fine voice either way, on the whole his singing sounded best in the higher register on songs like “I Walk Alone” and “Feed the Babies,” also from his new album.
Tracks from “This Land” comprised a heavy majority of the evening’s setlist, with only intermittent forays into the back catalogue. Mr. Clark presented his new songs with the utmost confidence, as if they’re already among his best. Whether they are not, the likes of “Gotta Get Up” and “Feelin’ Like a Million” were far too catchy to not enjoy.
The audience mostly sat quietly during the numbers, admiring Mr. Clark’s instrumental prowess and only applauding after the solos that frequently wrapped up songs. However, the guitarist and his bandmates had certain moments that especially floored the crowd.
Mr. Clark’s first show-stopping number came with the ballad “You Saved Me.” The song’s three-note riff sweeping across the venue sounded powerful enough, to say nothing of the solo Mr. Clark topped it off with. Beginning in the elongated, romantic style Mr. Clark played when he first walked onstage, the solo finished with the guitarist displaying the full extent of his chops with enough tricky fingerwork and screaming notes to impress Prince.
“You got me feel like playing around here,” Mr. Clark said as the audience gave its most intense applause up until that point.
“When My Train Pulls In” was Mr. Clark’s other most brilliant moment, giving one of his best non-falsetto vocal performances and displaying the full extent of his ability on guitar. The audience was hooked on the tune from the beginning, cheering at its deep, booming blues riff, and the band managed to hold the crowd’s attention during the song’s extended jam section. This found some group members fall away and Mr. Clark’s guitar switch to an uncharacteristically sharp and thin sound. As the improvisation increased in intensity, Mr. Clark produced his second great solo of the evening. The “You Saved Me” solo was more virtuosic, but the “When My Train Pulls In” solo featured the most unforgettable sound, with the guitarist masterfully using fuzz to produce a nasty, shrieking pitch.
Comparisons between Mr. Clark and Jimi Hendrix may be all too common, but this number clearly showed why those comparisons exist. The audience was clearly impressed, as chants of “Gary! Gary! Gary!” were heard once the song was over.
Though clearly the star of the show, Mr. Clark was surprisingly generous and let his bandmates have their moments. Drummer Johnny Radelat and Johnny Bradley were relegated to the sidelines for the entire performance, but Mr. Deas left the audience impressed with a keyboard and synthesizer solo on “Low Down Rolling Stone” and co-guitarist King Zapata played lead at several points during the concert’s first half.
Hearing the second guitarist swap rhythm and lead lines with Mr. Clark was particularly entertaining due to their different styles. Whereas much of Mr. Clark’s playing was distorted, bluesy, and muscular, Mr. Zapata produced a smoother and occasionally metallic sound that provided an interesting counterpoint.
After concluding his main set with “Pearl Cadillac,” Mr. Clark returned to do a three-song encore, for which much of the audience was on its feet. “The Guitar Man” received a somewhat muted reception, but the profanity-laden “This Land” had the audience singing along and enjoying itself more than any of Mr. Clark’s older numbers.
Finishing a set with a cover may seem like a curious choice, but Mr. Clark did just that with “Come Together.” This didn’t in any way feel extraneous, as the audience immediately recognized The Beatles classic and enjoyed it. There was nothing tricky about the song’s simple riffing, but when given the Gary Clark Jr. treatment it brought the curtain down in a way that sounded absolutely thunderous.