By: Blythe Penn
Approaching Red Butte Garden Amphitheater, I could hear opening act, Los Coast, blaring across the parking lot. The Austin, TX band describes their sound as “punchy psychedelic-pop- soul.” The little bit of their set I caught felt both edgy and danceable. Audience members were rocking out by the side of the stage.
Between sets, Red Butte played reggae tone and The Clash, which was nice to hear. The crowd was older—Long beards, grateful dead t-shirts. Peace, love, and tie-dye.
It was dark by the time the blue stage lights went black for the main act, and a few opening notes rang out. The crowd was mostly standing as Gary Clark, Jr. appeared, wearing his signature wide brimmed hat, and an all black ensemble— a black blazer, t-shirt, and jeans. As the song ensued, the synthesizer keyboard fired off and chest-thumping bass came blasting from the stage. It was a dramatic opening to the song “Bright Lights,” from Clark’s 2012 album Blak And Blu. With every strum of the guitar, the stage lights changed. After the build up, Clark’s raspy-soul voice entered the song, and the crowd cheered.
The powerful opening performance set the tone of Clark’s set. His presence felt legendary at times, surrounded by blue light, his face shaded by his wide brimmed hat as he focused on playing his guitar.
In “What About Us,” from 2019 album This Land, Clark sings “There goes the neighborhood… the young blood’s taking over… plan on moving over.” The flashing light sequence continued to sync with the crashing guitar. I was surprised by Clark’s falsetto, which was an excellent complement to the explosive sounds of the band.
The brass came out for “Got to Get Up,” as well as an impressive guitar solo. It was a night full of impressive guitar solos—something that makes going to live shows so invigorating.
Clark slowed it down with “You Saved Me,” followed by the swaying, moderate tempo of “Our Love,” from his 2015 release The Story of Sonny Boy Slim. The band jammed this one out with a thrilling drum, bass and organ build up. The electrifying blues guitar improvisation soared in, backed by a grooving rhythm section. The voices of all the instruments went buck wild before coming back together for the chorus. “Our Love” was a standout song for me, offering a romantic, heartfelt tone from the cutting explosion of the rest of the set.
The set continued with several new songs. “When I’m Gone,” “I Got My Eyes On You (Locked & Loaded),” “Gotta Get Into Something,” “Guitar Man,” and “Low Dow Rolling Stone.” “Gotta Get Into Something” employs a punk guitar riff, reminiscent of The Ramone’s “I Wanna Be Sedated.” I was not expecting to hear punk-infused blues-rock, but Clark really pulls it off.
“Low Down Rolling Stone” was one of my favorite songs of the night. Opening with a fuzzy minor three note guitar riff, the tune immediately creates a presence. The rhythm section joins in, emulating the cadence of this riff. “Something’s going on with me / I’m not who I used to be,” Clark sings. The blues licks follow the melody of the vocals in the chorus, singing, “I’m better off on my own. I’m just a low down rolling stone.” This catchy vocals-guitar chorus reminded me of Jimi Hendrix. As the song goes on it plays with lightness and dark, maintaining a compelling blues-rock feel.
Before leaving the stage, Clark introduced his band. The crowd cheered, but shrank, as encore cheers went on. As always, the weather was part of the Red Butte Concert series, and the evening was surprisingly chilled by end of summer / early fall air. By the end of the set, I spotted several audience members sporting puffy coats.
The audience managed to get Clark and his band back on stage for two spirited encore songs. They opened with “This Land,” the title track from his 2019 release, which addresses racism in America. The song opens with a heavy Moog synthesizer riff—a quick attention grabber and something I was surprised (and thrilled) to hear coming from the band. The song also employs a reggae upstroke, another interesting element. Although I was unable to hear the lyrics, the passion of the song was evident.
Clark closed with “Come Together,” which he covered in 2017 for the Justice League movie soundtrack. This isn’t a simple rendition of The Beatles classic; the opening guitar is in full overdrive, and the verses are backed by a Nine Inch Nails style synth. The familiar song lit up and unified the crowd as we all sang along, rocking out to this fresh rendition of a classic.
The waxing half moon was bright over the amphitheater, hanging over the city as the crowd filed out of the amphitheater. “Thanks for coming out Salt Lake,” Clark said, “I was excited to be here and you showed up once again.”
For more information on Gary’s 2019 album This Land, please click here to read this interview with Rolling Stone.