By Chris M. Junior
You don’t have to be poor to play the blues. But with few exceptions, blues artists do have to pay their musical dues in some shape or form.
Raised in a middle-class environment in the Austin, Texas, neighborhood of Oak Hill, Gary Clark Jr. started playing guitar in sixth grade and began performing at the legendary Austin blues venue Antone’s at age 15.
Plenty more club gigs followed over the next decade, as well as a few indie-label recordings, before Clark’s big break: a short set at the 2010 edition of Eric Clapton’s Crossroads Guitar Festival.
These days, Clark records for a major label (Warner Bros.) and headlines theaters, among them the Borgata casino’s Music Box, where on Oct. 19, he and his band performed an impressive and passionate set of originals and covers.
Clark and his three-piece group started off with “Ain’t Messin ’Round,” the opening track on Clark’s first Warner Bros. album, 2012’s “Blak and Blu.” Something other than the song’s punchy horns was missing: Clark’s vocals, which were buried in the mix. By the time they hit the first chorus, his voice was finally audible, and the Atlantic City, N.J., crowd cheered with appreciation and relief.
That turned out to be the only glitch of the night. As for applause-worthy moments, there were plenty. The band sounded like a well-oiled machine during the fingerpicking frenzy “Don’t Owe You a Thang,” with bassist Johnny Bradley and drummer Johnny Radelat laying down a relentless rhythm bed over which Clark and fellow guitarist Eric “King” Zapata traded solos. The Clark-only “Blak and Blu” was dirtier, more dynamic and much better than the album’s clinical R&B version. The slow sizzler “You Saved Me” was also stripped of its slick studio coating, with Clark exploring the upper reaches of his vocal range and showing just how much Jimi Hendrix has been an influence on his guitar playing.
Clark and company concluded with “Bright Lights,” and given Clark’s recent success and the song’s placement in the show, the refrain “You gonna know my name by the end of the night” has taken on new context. Instead of “Just you wait and see,” it’s become “I told you so.” Surprisingly, but also quite fittingly, there were no encores.
Clark’s fall tour will resume Nov. 10 with the first of two shows at the Royale in Boston, followed by two dates each in Washington, D.C., and New York. His final scheduled concert for 2013 is Nov. 29 at Stubb’s in Austin, Texas.