Gary Clark Jr.: The Story of Sonny Boy Slim

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Gary Clark Jr.
The Story of Sonny Boy Slim
(Warner Brothers)
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“This music is my healing,” sings contemporary bluesman Gary Clark Jr. on “Healing,” the opening track from his second major label studio release. As he showed on his previous outing, Clark is not here to recycle blues riffs or be the next Stevie Ray Vaughan. Rather, he’s more interested in breaking down the blues, blues-rock and soul-blues boundaries in ways similar to how Jimi Hendrix reimagined and expanded the genre by giving it an acid-enhanced infusion.

That’s not to imply Clark is copying the Seattle guitarist, but rather to say he is not content to play to the status quo. On “Star,” “Cold Blooded” and other tracks he wallows in a Sly Stone, Prince and Lenny Kravitz psychedelic soul stew utilizing occasional falsetto vocals and ghostly backing singers to lay down a distinctive and captivating groove. On “Church,” Clark takes on gospel but strips it down to acoustic folk, bringing a John Lennon styled singer-songwriter intensity.   Elsewhere, on “Our Love,” the spirit of Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and even Michael Jackson at his most introspective urges the song forward with a tough yet tender approach.

Clark doesn’t have the unique singing voice of his influences and the extended solos he unspooled so liberally on last year’s live double album have all but disappeared.  Still, he puts across this music — which is more soul than blues — with raw emotion that feels lived in and real. The overdriven guitar riff that underpins “Stay” seems to be grafted from an old Mountain or Cream album even if the song is pure R&B. On “Shake,” arguably the most overtly blues track here, Clark plays it relatively straight as his slide guitar slithers through an upbeat, raucous Chicago vibe Elmore James would have been proud of. 

Only on the snoozy, unfocused, twice as long as necessary eight minute Prince-like closer “Down to Ride” does Clark need someone to inform him editing can help make a good tune better. But with music this audacious, you forgive occasional lapses.

It’s still early to throw accolades like “visionary” around but aspects of Clark’s music encourage that reaction. “This music sets me free,” he continues on “Healing,” and it’s likely to have the same effect on you.