Gary Clark Jr.’s guitar work has been hyped for years — a top talent who, when I’d seen him twice previously, delivered.
But he delivered in that sort of straight-ahead blues fashion, which seemed a little confining, boxed-in by this notion of what he was expected to be.
At Friday night’s show at Red Butte Garden Amphitheatre, the Austin-based Clark destroyed the box with a genre-jumping set exploring about every type of music imaginable, then using his guitar talent to twist it into something distinctly his own.
Clark, tall, lean and dressed in black with a wide-brimmed hat and boots, seemed more comfortable on stage, confident in the weapon in his hands, and constructed one elaborate, cohesive guitar solo after another, teasing the audience with a theme early, then stacking layer after layer on top of it until it was towering.
And there were no limits to the type of influences he would play with. He seemed to channel Prince’s falsetto and funky guitar licks on “Down to Ride”; his “Got to Get Up” is a protest song that sounds vaguely like a Parliament Funkadelic jam if you replaced the horns with Clark’s guitar; “Feeling Like A Million” had a plunky reggae beat that seemed to come from Peter Tosh.
And it kept coming. He incorporated the jangly reggae-inspired sounds of The Police, the smooth soul of Smokey Robinson on “Our Love,” a retro-style “What Up God?” that hinted of Sam and Dave. One of the highlights of the night was when he went punk, with “Gotta Get Into Something,” which sounded like it could have been a cover of a Ramones song.
But Clark wasn’t playing covers. Every time he used the sound as a springboard to dive into something that was his own, highlighted with another soaring, wailing solo. His band kept pace turn for turn, with Jon Deas’ work on organ and drummer Johnny Radelat standing out.
Clark’s encore featured the title track from his new album, “The Land,” his most politically charged song he has recorded. Clark told Rolling Stone earlier this year that the raw track draws on the racism he experienced growing up in the South — slurs written on his parent’s fence and Confederate flags hung outside his home — and directs it at the current climate, and tops it with defiance: “I ain’t leaving here you can’t take it from me,” he sings, “This land is mine.”
He followed it up with “Guitar Man,” a song about separation and life on the road, and capped it off with his high-octane rendition of The Beatles’ “Come Together.”
The whole evening was jaw-dropping, the best performance I’ve seen in quite a while, elevating Clark from the gifted to elite, and on a trajectory to go even higher.