THE HOLLYWOOD BOWL COLLAPSED UNDER THE WEIGHT OF THE SOULFUL FEELS RIPPED OUT BY GARY CLARK JR.
Written by Sean Rambow
LOS ANGELES, CA- The band walked out on stage, but he stalked out – in a bluesman’s getup that was reminiscent of both the low-down dirty swamp vibes that (let’s be honest) we all love and a long stretch of dusty desert Texas road that I could never regret moseying on down even if it never actually happened upon another touch of civilization. Recorded music playing from the speakers as they settled themselves, in no way drowning out the audience roaring with frenzied delight. With the overhead lights low and with his fedora shadowing his eyes, top shirt buttons undone just enough to flash a feather pendant slung low around his neck and huge boulders of rings adorning his fingers, the man was a smoldering fire in the pit of a cold night, ready to be fanned up only to burn the crowd down.
From those first few moments of realizing that his face always seemed to reside half in shadows, as if he himself knew what everyone there wished to see most (and he was pleased to partially deny), I already felt like Hollywood wasn’t truly ready. The Bowl reverberated with the power opening of a straight non-vocal blues-rock jam, the music finally overpowering the crowd’s cheering, whipping up an energy that would stay throughout the entirety of the show; a quick and striking intro that smoothly gave way into “Bright Lights,” both a pleaser and teaser of what was to come.
As the swamp swept over every section of seating, the stage’s backlights switched into bright white fronds of mossy ferns, drawing me into a shiny dirtiness that I was (and still am) ready to bury myself in; a waterlogged peat forest of deep, grungy blues that those listening may not have known much about. I can still, days later, feel bogged down with the sound. I doubt its departure anytime soon and am wholeheartedly pleased about it.
As the night continued I could feel twangs of blues, rock, and country intermingling with jazzy hip-hop, gospel, and even notes of reggae as the lighting toyed with the many moods, creating an environment that was forceful, funky, uplifting, and lowdown yet still retaining a welcoming presence; all the while baring his soul to a crowd of roughly 18,000 attendees without the bat of an eye. High-tuned lyrics reached a pitch at times that reminded me of an artist formerly known by both a name and a symbol, not unlike soft velvet riding a groove in “Cold Blooded”; a balance of falsetto and slow funk stirred up with sliding horns washing over a wave of loneliness and longing in “Feed the Babies,” not only likely for his own loved ones but as a touch of reality, a nod to a piece of our nation’s current social climate.
Members of the band, not to be buried underneath, each had time in the limelight with Eric Zapata grabbing an early rhythm guitar solo and keyboardist Jon Deas, fingers flying high and mighty over the keys with an organ sound in the clouds well before the close out, and the other two members grabbing ground in between. The drummer, Johnny Radelat, knew when to pound the heads like a wild, crazed beat machine and when to pull back just a bit to keep the band glued together, meanwhile bassist Johnny Bradley held the hardline of groovy funk and low jazzy soul, giving the many types of twings and twangs something perfect to float along. There were multiple moments of the band holding it down while Clark Jr. seemed to make a saucy sound so thick he looked to get lost in it himself, pulling faces that may have gone unnoticed without the audience there to see them while he made us understand the feeling of every chord, every strum, every pluck, slide, and hold.
Although the original opener, Michael Kiwanuka, was unable to perform due to sickness, he was replaced last minute with a quick-witted, wry and raspy Benjamin Booker, who brought an intimate playlist to strike a heatedly playful, yet no less soulful, mood that would get wrapped up in the force of what came after. Booker and his two companions left the stage and audience very warm, in such a way that the headliner could come out to bring both to a bluesy boil of soul in a style best described overall as frenetic while somehow retaining complete control the whole way through.
Closing with the powerhouse “Come Together,” I fully accepted that no sound of the night could exist without acknowledging some of the greats that they all pulled from; a touch of Jimi Hendrix here, a sly sweep of a solo riff not wholly unlike Carlos Santana there, and some stylish bursts of Stevie Ray Vaughan and The Beatles spread and mixed, breathing new life into sounds that many had forgotten or believed left in the past. Gary Clark Jr. is a living legend; even without the rabbit’s foot pinned to his hat, open your eyes and ears because no luck is needed, the acceptance is without doubt.