Gary Clark Jr. opened the encore of his sold-out show at Belly Up on Saturday with his only cover song of the night, playing Albert King’s “Oh Pretty Woman.” Of the legendary King, he told the crowd, “If you don’t know him, you should know him.”
It was the 30-year-old Austin, Texas, native’s only overt reference to the blues tradition, of which he is his generation’s torchbearer. But for 90 minutes before that moment, Clark proved himself a fiery traditionalist. In the two years since his breakout album, “Blak and Blu,” Clark has been hailed as the future of blues. He lived up to the hype Saturday.
His subjects — needing and losing money, needing and losing women, trains in transit — are the same stuff bluesmen have been blue about since Muddy Waters and Lead Belly. But Clark brings a vitality to the form that speaks to millenials without adding many bells and whistles, driven by his virtuosic guitar skills, reminiscent of fellow Texan Stevie Ray Vaughan.
He opened with roaring takes on “Catfish Blues,” “Ain’t Messin’ Around” and “Next Door Neighbor Blues,” proving himself a master at building a song to the edge of an explosive climax and letting it simmer there. Guitar heroes so often go for high-velocity shows overstuffed with intricate solos and sweaty histrionics — not Clark, a wizard of suspense and pacing.
As a result, the few times he let his guitar work go over the edge — an apocalyptic bottom fret jam on “Travis County,” for example, and another on “Bright Lights” — the crowd exploded in a frenzy.
“We’ll give your ears a break for a second,” Clark said after the roar and rip of “Travis County,” going into the slow R&B-style jam “Please Come Home,” one of a handful of songs where he sang in a sweet falsetto and showed he has chops as a soul singer as well as a bluesman.
He was backed up by a tight three-man band, including rhythm-guitar work from Eric “King” Zapata, who provided some impressive slide-guitar licks on “Don’t Owe You a Thing.”
Clark’s microphone was positioned at stage right, his band stage left, leaving a swath of negative space center stage, where he could stalk, strut and appropriately make his guitar theatrics the focus of the action.
He closed the 90-minute set with an almost quiet “Blak and Blu,” beginning without accompanying drums and with a focus on his vocals, but built it into a thrashing guitar riff and transitioned straight into a soaring “Bright Lights” — the highlight of the night.
In his two-song encore, Clark followed “Oh Pretty Woman” with the distortion-heavy “You Saved Me.”
Clark has a cool, commanding and charismatic stage presence. He doesn’t bother much with banter but can effectively punctuate a song or a note with a mischievous grin or a sneer.
He opened “Numb” with a smirk and a single open-fretted note, knocking on the body of his guitar to establish the beat before ripping into the song’s fuzzed-out beginning riff.
He took the stage in a de rigueur bluesman’s fedora and a long-sleeve zip-up coat, which unzipped progressively and eventually came off after his fifth song, leaving him in a black T-shirt with a large crystal necklace.