Gary Clark Jr. isn’t one for small talk. When the Austinite steps on a stage, you won’t find him cracking jokes or making conversation with his fans. That’s because when it comes to entertaining, Clark just lets his guitar do the talking.
On Thursday night at the Wiltern Theatre, the tall, slender axe man delivered one heck of a speech — whether it was with his Gibson ES-335 or his Fender Stratocaster — to a sold-out crowd that featured both young and old.
Making his arsenal of guitars screech and squeal during the nearly two-hour performance, Clark reaffirmed that if there’s one man who can save the blues in today’s EDM-dominated music scene, it’s him.
After enduring a three-night run at the diminutive Troubadour in November and a gig at the historic Roxy in February, Clark has bided his time before earning the opportunity to grace some of L.A.’s larger venues.
And in his first big test, he certainly passed with flying colors.
With his band mates leading the way, the Jimmie Vaughan protégé entered stage right in no particular hurry, strapped on his guitar and broke into hit single “Ain’t Messin’ 'Round” despite not having a horns section behind him. Trombones or no trombones, it didn’t matter, as Clark quickly grabbed the attention of his audience prior to uncorking the Chuck Berry-flavored “Travis County.”
For his ensuing song, Clark took a break from his studio material to honor one of his blues-guitar forefathers with a cover of B.B. King’s “3 O'Clock Blues.” But it wasn’t until he unleashed the blood-boiling “When My Train Pulls In” that the pace really started to pick up. From there, Clark pumped out some more Texas blues with “Don't Owe You a Thang,” a cut he introduced to listeners on 2011’s The Bright Lights EP.
Still, if there’s one thing Clark does better than most solo artists, it’s mixing tempos. His cover of Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun/If You Love Me Like You Say” came sandwiched in between the 1950s doo-wop “Please Come Home” and the reggae-infused “You Saved Me.” He even slowed down “Blak and Blu,” the soulful title track on his 2012 major-label debut, providing a perfect segue way into fan favorite “Bright Lights” that ended the set on quite a high note.
When he slinked back on stage to begin his encore, Clark paid tribute to another blues legend — except this time it was without his backing band — by covering Leroy Carr’s “In the Evening (When the Sun Goes Down).” As poignant as the number was, Clark wouldn’t be staying true to his roots if didn’t close with one of his hard-rocking tunes, so he left us with “Numb,” on which he croons, “Well, I'm numb / Yeah woman, I can't feel a thing.”
By the time most of us walked out of the Wiltern, neither could we.