Graded on a Curve:
Gary Clark Jr., “Gary Clark Jr. Presents Hotwire Unlimited Raw Cuts Vol. 1”

Gary Clark Jr. isn’t a musician—he’s a force of nature. His uncanny mix of rock, the blues, soul, country, and even hip hop will blow the top of your head off, and that’s when he’s hardly trying. The Austin, Texas guitarist has won comparisons to the best of them, and he deserves them—his live version of “Catfish Blues” will have you thinking Hendrix, but he’s blunter and less flashy. He’s more muscle than finesse, although he’s capable of the latter when it’s required. And if distortion is your thing, as it is mine, well, you’re not going to find better.

How great is Clark? Well, Austin’s mayor declared May 3, 2001 Gary Clark Jr. Day. Clark, a prodigy, was all of 17 at the time. He’s won numerous awards, played alongside dozens of superstars including the Rolling Stones, and gigged at the White House, which should have burned that evil structure down but inexplicably didn’t. You can also hear his music on various television programs. Even the late Idi Amin digs him, and went on the record as saying, “He’s so good, I wouldn’t even eat him.”

I love his more out there guitar work, which is why I’m such a fan of the awkwardly titled 12” limited vinyl EP, “Gary Clark Jr. Presents Hotwire Unlimited Raw Cuts Vol. 1.” Just three songs, but all of them extended jams guaranteed to sanctify the electric guitar freak in you. Recorded live, they demonstrate Clark at him unbridled best, letting his freak flag fly and cutting loose just for the funk of it. The “A” side, which was recorded live at Charlottesville, Virginia, smushes Jimi Hendrix’s “Third Stone from the Sun” with Little Johnny Taylor’s 1964 tune “If You Love Me Like You Say.” The “B” side features an extended version of Clark’s own “Bright Lights,” which has been featured in a number of film and TV programs, recorded live in London. His fellow musicians included Eric Zapata on guitar, Johnny Bradley on bass, and Johnny Radelat on drums.

“Third Stone from the Sun/If You Love Me Like You Say” opens in a fantastic barrage of feedback and distortion, with Clark tossing off vaguely Middle Eastern riffs but in general just making a cacophony until the drums come crashing in, at which point Clark commences to play a gigantic drone that goes on and on, until he segues into a funky riff that’ll knock your socks off. He then commences singing, “If you love me like you say/Why do you treat me like you do?” And then bursts into a solo that is more finesse than distortion and feedback, although he tosses in both here and there. He then returns to the vocals, vamping on the riff, before pausing to give the Bradley the opportunity to play front man for spell, backed by the drummer. Ah, but Clark’s not done yet. He commences to play a squiggly solo that defies description before blasting back into the gigantic riff that opened the tune, tossing off wild series of notes and basically demonstrating that he is in fact a guitar god. He repeats a phrase over and over, throwing in sudden squalls of feedback, and then plays a brief melodic passage before returning to devastating your eardrums. The song picks up tempo briefly, and then Clark shuts things down with some feedback and the statement, “Woo! Got a little bit crazy. Sorry about that.” Nothing to be sorry for, Gary. The pleasure was all ours.

The opening of “Bright Lights” is muted, but quickly picks up in volume and dissonance until Davis is playing big distorted riffs while singing, “You’re gonna know my name by the end of the night” and “Bright lights, big city/Going to my head.” He repeats both phrases, and then the band kicks into overdrive, with Davis playing a blistering solo that, while not as wild as the one he plays on the “A” side, is beyond impressive. He then returns to singing the chorus, before the band explodes in a cacophony, and Davis plays a solo that reminds me slightly of Neil Young at his wildest. Distortion, feedback, and the ability to play circles around almost anybody else all turn what follows into one of the better solos I’ve ever heard, and things don’t quiet down even after he starts singing what turns out to be the song’s end.

Perhaps the greatest thing that can be said of Clark is that he actually managed to render a live Dave Matthews video bearable. That isn’t an accomplishment, that’s hard cold voodoo. Nay, but seriously brethren, the man may well be the best guitarist currently plying the trade, and that’s hard cold fact. His ability to work in a number of genres, as well as his uncanny ability to make his guitar do things it wasn’t designed to do, both make him a musician worth checking out. His guitar work is the equivalent of trepanning, and who doesn’t want another hole in their head? I know I do. But then I also want to see Clark live, which most likely won’t put a hole in my head, but simply cause it to explode altogether.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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