Gary Clark Jr., Danforth Music Hall, Toronto, ON- 11/18
Photo by Andrew Dubinsky
It’s generally a sign of dependable quality, when an artist receiving a ton of critical buzz as a blues guitarist. Contrary to the potentially fickle value of any number of other genres and proclivities, how bad can a celebrated axe-man really be? Filling Toronto’s Danforth Music Hall, a venue at least five times larger than that of his last visit, Gary Clark Jr. lived up to his immense hype. His apparent effortlessness only served to inflate his growing legend.
Bookending the performance with the two singles from his 2012 smash Blak and Blu – “Ain’t Messin’ Round” and “Numb” – the Texan string bender loaded ninety minutes with gritty emotion and timeless flavor. His airtight band was on point, as was his selection of cover songs, and the audience was putty in his hands. A chorus of already-thrilled “woo“s rang out to the opening notes of B.B. King’s “3 o’clock Blues.” the sultry composition allowing Clark to channel Mr. King, albeit with a few more notes per measure. Gear geeks drooled over Clark’s arsenal, dudes of all ages air-guitared with expressions of pure inspiration, and the ladies up front cat-called to their hearts’ content. Here was a retro pop culture hero that everyone could believe in.
“Catfish Blues” followed the cover trend, the urgency of Clark’s solo propelling its raunchy road house vibe. While his signature combo of “Third Stone From The Sun”/”If You Love Me Like You Say” and his smooth take on Albert King’s “Oh Pretty Woman” were both treats, it was Clark’s original material that shone as the night progressed. Drummer Johnny Radelat – looking like a young Bob Dylan and bringing endless swing to his straightforward beats – drove the motion-filled groove of “Don’t Owe You A Thing” before Clark turned up the heat with sweet falsetto and a superlative solo on the doo-wop bonanza of “Please Come Home.”
“Nice toque!” shouted a bearded flannel enthusiast during a tuning break. Even Clark’s hecklers were harmlessly Canadian, and everyone in the room gushed in between songs, at the casual display of musical prowess before their eyes. The high point of Clark’s performance came during “When My Train Pulls In,” his restless and fuzzy sound peaking with monstrous force on a series of solos. The man wields a great deal of power, and his ability to judiciously dole out the goods while switching up his cadence from tune to tune, left people shaking their heads. Versatile, tasteful, and downright destructive at his most fiery, Clark had taken classic blues to a new level.
After the chunky strut of “Bright Lights” had closed the set proper, a more contemporary feel emerged in the encore with the R&B-tinged “You Saved Me” before “Numb” returned to finish things off on all its speaker-blasting, late 60s-evoking glory. In spite of the often gutty nature of his songs, Clark never looked riled. His mighty guitar virtues and spirited vocalizations flowed with a steady calm, perhaps a sign that as his star rises, he is more than ready to play his part.