Monday, 4 August 2014

Gary Clark Jr – Paradiso, 27 May 2014

May 27, 2014 was a night to remember. A night that on the surface may have looked like any other night in Amsterdam, but was in fact a unique, one-off, never-to-be-repeated event.

This was the night that I unwittingly found myself in a Louisiana blues bar, seeing the best blues guitarist I have ever seen live.

To set the scene let me first explain how I came to be in a Louisiana blues bar.

May 27 was an unusually warm day in Amsterdam. The temperature probably wasn’t much above 20 degrees, but the humidity was sky high and the air was thick and muggy.

Just before show time the skies opened and torrential rain began to fall on the city. This was serious rain, not the normal Amsterdam drizzle. In fact it was raining so hard that for the first time in my nearly 200 shows, I caught a tram up to Paradiso and left my bike at home.

Obviously I was the only person who took such drastic (read; common sense) measures, because as the venue began to fill up, more and more people came in soaking wet, with hair and t-shirts dripping and forming small pools under them, like kids waiting in line for ice-cream at the beach.

The third ingredient in this intoxicating cocktail was that this was a sold out show. And not just a regular sold out show, a ‘this band is so hot right now’ sold out show, where Paradiso always seems to somehow fit an extra 200 people in compared to a regular sold out show.

These three factors came together, quite literally, to create a mini subtropical uber-climate, confined to the four walls and ceiling of the Paradiso. The heat of the day, combined with the heat of a packed crowd in a small space made all the water start evaporating. The air was so thick and so hot, I honestly thought I was going to pass out on more than one occasion.

And hence I, and everyone else there, was transported to the capital of hot and humid; Louisiana.

The second part of this unique evening was of course the show itself.

I don’t claim to be a blues guitarist aficionado and I have never seen Clapton or Knopfler , but I have seen my fair share of legends and modern day axe grinders. And there is no doubt in my mind this guy was the best I have seen.

For anyone who has any of Gary’s albums or EP’s, you will know he has a really interesting mix of heavily blues influenced songs as well as some real pop-soul ‘R&B’ numbers and there can be quite dramatic changes in style from one song to another. But the live set was much more on the heavy blues side of the scale, with only a couple of the groovier, mellow songs thrown in.

This included 5 blues covers (in the 16 song set), featuring the likes of B.B. King, Albert King, Leroy Carr, Albert Collins and of course his now famous version of Catfish Blues by Robert Petway, which kicked off the night.

Looking back on the night I think the aspect that pushed him to the top of my list was not just his technical playing ability, which I can’t really vouch for beyond a certain level. It was his passion. I have never seen a live player manhandle their guitar in such a way before. Gary’s giant hands (and they are giant) were all over that guitar in a strange combination of brutality and loving caress.

And unlike most of the legends I have seen, who already knew their place in guitar folk-law, it really felt like he was still trying to play his way to the top. Every note and every chord was pushed out with a fervent energy that demanded attention. When the lights shone at the right angle from the back of the stage, you could see the sweat running, not dripping, running down his mangy beard and onto his guitar.

The other thing that sets him apart from a lot of other really good guitarist is his voice. The dude can sing, in a soulful, distinctive tone and one that suits his style of play. Lyrically he doesn’t match it with the Ben Harpers of the world, but in my mind his voice sets him apart of the Clapton’s and Knopfler’s, who have never had strong voices.

Seeing him live on stage, it is easy to see where the Hendrix comparisons come from and given my borderline obsession with Hendrix as a teenager, perhaps this also contributed to the numerous ‘raised hair on the back of the neck’ moments I experiences this night.

Whatever the combinations of elements were, there is no doubt this was a night to remember.


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