Gary Clark Jr. has steadily built a devoted following in the Twin Cities since he first debuted in town at First Avenue five years ago. Saturday night the consummate blues guitarist capped off this year’s series of outdoor concerts at Surly’s Festival Field on what turned out to be one of the sweetest nights of the summer.
As the sun set, creating a rosy haze in the cloudless distance, Clark’s fat-sounding guitar and his four-piece band laid down a steadfast groove that they’d maintain for the next two hours. More than 5,500 beer-soaked attendees at the sold-out Surly field grew more raucous as the night went on, celebrating the end of the summer with the nastiest, heaviest blues band anyone could ask for.
Clark, dressed in matching suede jacket, pants, and Varvatos boots, with his hat shadowing his eyes, set the bar for the night with the opening chords of the standard “Catfish Blues.” A cool breeze kicked in, fitting for Clark as he maintained his cool approach and style toward the blues, rooted in a simplicity that had been lacking in too many modern practitioners of the form before he showed up on the scene.
Clark effortless approach makes subtlety his grandest weapon. His sound comes from the soul but modulates with his attack of the instrument. Clark rides a continuous groove that feels like it could go on forever. only to eventually climax with his arsenal of thick, dense guitar work.
Clark’s blazing licks took flight, leaving trails of sound in the sky during “Ain’t Messing Around,” the rawness of his tone and his jagged chicken scratch guitar played along with the rhythm section’s propulsive backbeat. Then Clark’s precise slide work conjured up a trance with the more traditional blues lover’s tryst/dirge “Next Door Neighbor Blues.”
On “When My Train Pulls In,” riffs seamlessly morphed into reggae, creating more space for Clark’s guitar to continue to soar. The audience, bobbing and swaying with the groove, were well goofed up on Surly’s barley and hops, finding communal solace as minions for Clark.
Then Clark was ready to unveil his sweeter side. “Is there anyway we can have the lights down?” he asked. “It’s going to get sexy.” The opening chord of “Our Love” practically forced ladies into their dates’ arms, and many lovers found themselves slow-dancing and canoodling.
Grinding bass and a steady beat continued to prime the canvas for Clark’s understated licks to take flight through several fan favorites. The admiration was mutual. “Can I do another one?” Clark asked. “I feel like I can share something with you. I appreciate the love.”
After humming the intro to “When I’m Gone,” the band took once again took off. Clark rode cascading scales up and down the neck of his guitar, then rising again like a phoenix during “Don’t Owe You a Thang,” which broke down into an extended jam. Clark’s signature “Bright Lights” had him working a two-note solo while maintaining a steady fervor in the now-rapturous audience.
Women were dancing everywhere and beer cups were strewn about as the chanting for an encore became ravenous. Howling into the night with his fattest tone yet, Clark’s guitar lines swirled about like snakes and an echoing buzz lit up the sky. Then the chords to the Beatles’ “Come Together” became recognizable, leading into a lowdown and dirty sing-along from everyone present.
The crowd: Perhaps feeling State Fair withdrawal and squeezing whatever was left of summer out that they could.
Overheard in the crowd : “I’ll buy the beers. No, I’ll buy the beers. Fine then, I will buy the beers!”
Random notebook dump: We've come a long since Blueshammer.