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    Pop Music

    Gary Clark Jr. a young force steeped in old sounds

    Joseph Garay
    “I’ve been cutting some songs, got a good chunk of work done,’’ says Gary Clark Jr., of working on his full-length debut album.

    Ten years in the making, Gary Clark Jr., is about to become an overnight sensation. With the recent release of a four-song EP, the 27-year-old guitarist, who headlines a sold-out show at T.T. the Bear’s Place on Monday, is quickly gathering a small army of friends in high places. “You know who is killing it? Gary Clark Jr. Hurry up and Google [him] before you’re late, because he is, like, so special,’’ Alicia Keys recently told an interviewer at last month’s Black Ball, the singer’s annual benefit concert. On stage that night, Clark played the featured solo on an all-star version of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps.’’

    Not only can he make it weep - Clark seems capable of making his guitar express more emotions than the human body can muster. A native of Austin, Texas, where he was nurtured by local mainstays such as Jimmie Vaughan, Clark is establishing himself as a rare bird - a performer adept with the blues, but eager to roam free in classic soul, hard rock, and hip-hop.

    They’ve already known about him in Austin for years. In 2001, when Clark was just 17, the mayor proclaimed a day in his honor. That was when the guitarist, still in high school, released his first recording, an independently released album called “Worry No More.’’


    Clark chuckled when that album was mentioned during a recent phone conversation.

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    “I was just a kid,’’ he said. “I didn’t know anything.’’ Clark’s longtime friend Zapata, a guitarist who plays in his band, recently teased the frontman by playing a riff from the album while they were working in the studio.

    “He was mocking me,’’ recalled Clark. “All I could do was shake my head.’’

    He may yet consider reviving some of the tracks from the album in some form, he said. If his career takes off as it seems destined, he might have to. Fans will demand it.

    After releasing a much-matured 8-song EP last year, Clark signed with Warner Bros., which issued “The Bright Lights EP’’ in August. It includes standout tracks “Bright Lights’’ and “Don’t Owe You a Thang’’ along with solo acoustic versions of two more early songs. The label hopes to release Clark’s full-length debut sometime in the new year.


    “I’ve been cutting some songs, got a good chunk of work done,’’ said Clark, who is as soft-spoken as his music is audacious. “Feeling pretty good about it. I could stay in the studio all day.’’

    He grew up in a house full of music lovers. His father kept a couple of guitars, his grandmother had a piano, and his great-grandmother was a music teacher. Clark and his sisters danced around the living room singing along with their parents’ records, using a microphone tuned to a radio frequency to sing along.

    “We had all kinds of stuff - soul to funk, jazz, pop,’’ he said.

    When he was old enough to explore his hometown on his own, the aspiring guitarist found music on every corner.

    “It was in your face,’’ he said. “There was a band playing outside the grocery store.’’


    His bandmates are fellow Austinites, some of whom Clark has known since high school. He credits Austin drummer Jay Moeller with turning him on to plenty of music that has inspired his own path. One particular musician Clark holds in high regard is Shuggie Otis, a onetime blues-guitar phenom (his father is longtime West Coast R&B bandleader Johnny Otis) who put out some mind-blowing, genre-scrambling music in the early 1970s, most notably the album “Inspiration Information.’’

    “He took all those influences and that background and threw it all in one little bag,’’ said Clark. The fact that “something that cool came out,’’ he said, “is very inspiring.’’

    He’s steeped in past styles - “Don’t Owe You a Thang’’ could have been done in the ’60s by Chicago boogie bluesman Hound Dog Taylor - yet there’s an undeniable tilt toward the future to Clark’s music. When John Sayles cast him as the young whippersnapper who helps nightclub owner Danny Glover revive his business in the 2007 period film “Honeydripper,’’ there was more than a little truth to the role.

    Though the experience gave Clark an acting bug, he’s cured of it now, he said. “I went on more auditions, and then I realized, you know what? I’m not really an actor. I’ll stick to what I know and let the real actors do their thing.’’

    With the receptions he’s been getting, he wishes he were, in fact, a better actor. “I’ve been trippin’ on the reactions’’ to the live shows, Clark said. “Sometimes it’s hard for me to play it off, to be cool.’’

    He can let his guitar do that for him.

    James Sullivan can be reached at