In his 1966 ethnography Urban Blues, sociologist Charles Keil lists the qualifications required of a bluesman as, in order of importance: having been hurt by a woman, being brought up in that old-time religion, and “knowing what that slavery shit is all about.” Gary Clark Jr. is a bluesman for the 21st century, and, while some aspects of his calling may have changed, these core credentials remain rock solid. In an era when digitally enhanced spectacles dominate the arena circuit, Clark packs large venues on the basis of pure sound. His show on Friday was as lean and elegant as the silhouette of the 6′5″ Clark that graces the cover of his fine recent album, This Land.
Taking the stage in dark denim under cover of darkness, Clark opened with “Bright Lights,” a signature tune from his first release that channels blues legend Jimmy Reed’s lyrics into a crackling, bass-heavy stomp. The groove of this song is so deep and wide one can imagine Clark laying into it all night. Like fellow neo-soul genius Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes, Clark has absorbed the entire range of styles into his seamless vocal flow. One minute, he’s growling out stentorian hip-hop verses on “This Land” and sounding like a bluesy Jay-Z, and the next he’s floating up into Prince territory with his falsetto on “I Walk Alone.” This music — unpretentious, energetic, and woke — fits the mood of 2019 like nothing else out there, and the response of the Santa Barbara audience made it clear that they were feeling it.