When Blak and Blu was released by Warner Bros in 2012, Gary Clark Jr became an instant sensation. Critics raved that the talented young blues guitarist and singer could be a revivalist for the genre. Clark is much more than that. If you’ve heard Blak and Blu, you know how the 31-year-old is able to take the blues, infuse it with his raucous guitar playing and easy, super-smooth style of singing, and elevate it to a level rarely heard.
Soon, Blak and Blu and the several gigs where the young Texan wowed audiences got him calls. Important ones — such as the one from Eric Clapton who invited him to play at his Crossroads Guitar Festival and is believed to have said that listening to Clark made him want to play the blues again. High praise came from others too: such as Buddy Guy who thinks Clark is the new saviour for the blues. And from bands such as The Rolling Stones and The Foo Fighters with whom he has also played.
Also watch: Gary Clark Jr.: Rock in Rio USA 2015
So, three years after I first heard Clark, on Blak and Blu, on a few live recordings, and in the Jon Favreau film, Chef, I couldn’t wait to listen to his second studio album, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, which came out last month. I was in for a surprise.
On Blak and Blu and the other live tracks, Clark’s music is distinctive for its rawness: his guitar influences range from Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan; but also, a bit oddly for a bluesman, the power chords and distorted notes of grunge bands — in fact, in a long interview to Relix magazine, Clark mentions Nirvana as one of his influences.
On Blak and Blu, the stand-out song is When My Train Pulls In, which, I think, showcases the bluesman’s oeuvre the best. His music, even on a studio album, is like listening to a live band. Or at least that’s what I thought. Till now.
On The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, the first thing that strikes you is the restraint. For the 13 songs, recorded not in an LA studio but in his hometown in Texas, Clark dropped his band and played every instrument on his own – diving deep into the music and making an album that is more like a personal project.
The searing guitar licks do show up on the new album but it also demonstrates how deep and mature a musician the young bluesman is. Genres are hopped with ease: from R&B (on Our Love) to gospel (on Church) to funk (on Can’t Sleep). His guitar is still the biggest magnet of his music but he also shows how comfortable and versatile his vocals can be.
The a capella opening to the first song, The Healing, is deceptive — it soon segues into a high-energy scorcher. And by the time you’re halfway into the album, and listening to Hold On, a song that is clearly a response to the resurgent racism in many parts of America, you are completely hooked to Clark. Again.
The other album that made its way to my playlist last fortnight was Craig Finn’s (frontman of The Hold Steady) new solo album, Faith in the Future. The Hold Steady and Finn make songs that tell stories – dark, sad and odd ones – about characters that inhabit the urban underbelly. Their songs are tales about people that are treated unfortunately by circumstances.
The 10 songs on the new Finn album aren’t different. His booze-soaked bar-ready vocals; the bit of reverb in the music; and the stories that aren’t going to make you happy. If you fancy a walk into the dark side, it’s a perfect album to play. I like The Hold Steady, and their 2005 album, Separation Sunday, creeps back into my playlist often. Craig’s storytelling is compelling though the stories are often disturbing. An album to play when you’re down and intend to stay there for a while. What? That doesn’t happen to you?
DOWN MEMORY LANE:
There are two tracks on Miles Davis’s 1970 album, A Tribute to Jack Johnson: Right Off and Yesternow; the first is nearly 27 minutes long and the second nearly 26.
Originally intended as a soundtrack for a documentary on the legendary black boxer, it’s probably the finest piece of electric jazz I’ve heard. Yes, finer than Bitches Brew. Oh, and who else besides the ace trumpeter is playing? Well, there’s John McLaughlin (on guitar), Herbie Hancock (on organ), and Billy Cobham (on drums). Want more? There’s also Dave Holland (on electric bass), Jack DeJohnette (on drums) and Chick Corea (on piano). Legends. Just like the album. Get a drink. Put it on. And switch off the lights.
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Himanshu Suri is a name that should roll quite easily off Indian tongues but if Himanshu Suri is the name of a New York-based rapper, it could be a good idea to have a stage name that is more rap friendly.
So Suri, once part of the erstwhile hip-hop group, Das Racist, raps under the name Heems. Das Racist was a short-lived group and has to its credit a discography of three releases: two freely downloadable mixtapes (Shut Up, Dude and Sit Down, Man) and a studio album (Relax).
Humour was a big part of Das Racist, which was essentially a duo plus a backup singer, and, especially after one of their infectious early compositions, Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, went viral, they began getting labelled as a joke rap band.
After Das Racist disbanded, Heems, whose talents by all accounts are multi-faceted (besides rap he’s into art, activism and has his own recording label), launched his solo career and recently released his debut album, Eat Pray Thug, which was, by the way, recorded in India – in Mumbai’s Bandra, to be precise.
Eat Pray Thug is no jokey album. It’s serious. It’s political and introspective. Issues of identity (Suri’s a second generation Indian American) appear in many of the songs, particularly on a few that describe the experience of being young and of Indian origin in New York City in the days and months after 9/11.
Suri was in school when that attack happened and its aftermath affected him profoundly and the one track that stands out is Flag Shopping.
It’s about how Indians and South Asians were targeted after the World Trade Center attacks and how they tried to demonstrate their oneness with the USA: We’re going flag shopping for American flags/They’re staring at our turbans/ They’re calling them rags/ They’re calling them towels/ They’re calling them diapers/ They’re more like crowns/ Let’s strike them like vipers… Politics recurs in some of Heems’s other tracks as well – in the one titled Patriot Act; and in the cleverly titled AlQ8a.
But Eat Pray Thug also has its lighter moments. Pop Song (Games), is a fun, danceable tune; Home and Damn, Girl are about relationships; and Sometimes, the album opener, is almost schizophrenic.
Like all good rap albums, what makes Eat Pray Thug a compelling listen are its lyrics – intelligent, emotional and evocative. Heems has a background that is unconventional for a rapper: he attended New York’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School and Wesleyan University and then worked on Wall Street before becoming a rap artist.
I’d heard both the Das Racist mix-tapes and their only album, Relax, which, besides a dose of Punjabi in the form of a bhangra-pop song, featured the rock band Yeasayers’ brilliant multi-instrumentalist Anand Wilder, and hip-hop artists, El-P and Danny Brown.
But Heems’s Eat Pray Thug is different from those Das Racist releases. There’s the seriousness, of course, but there’s also the unmistakably deep politics that tinges much of his work. This is a rapper that deserves to be watched.
DOWN MEMORY LANE:
In 1969, when The Beatles were releasing Yellow Submarine and Abbey Road, a band originally called Chicago Transit Authority released their self-titled debut album. It was a double album by a new band – not a format that a rock band normally chooses to debut with, but they did.
Chicago Transit Authority had to change its name to just Chicago shortly after that – when the real Chicago Transit Authority, the city’s mass transit operator, threatened to sue. But not before the debut album racked up sales of over a million.
That double album, which I consider a rock epic, is an early example of experimental rock; of a jazz-influenced big band playing tracks that stretched to seven, eight and even 14 minutes.
In an era when rock bands usually had four or five members, Chicago had seven, including, besides the very talented Terry Kath on guitars, Peter Cetera on bass and vocals and Robert Lamm on piano, a trumpeter and a trombonist. It was, as a band member once put it, a rock band “with horns”.
Chicago’s music lost a bit of its edge in its later years (the band, incidentally, is still in existence) but in their heady early years, their music created a huge impression on their peers, including the legendary Jimi Hendrix who is believed to have once said that Terry Kath (who died of a self-inflicted gunshot) was a better guitarist than himself. To check that out, give Chicago Transit Authority a listen.
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Like most of my friends, I heard my first Jimi Hendrix album after the legendary guitarist had died. Not surprising, because Hendrix died in 1970 and when he lived, he’d just four albums to his credit. I think the first Hendrix album that I got to listen to was Are You Experienced, which released in 1967, and had memorable songs such as Foxy Lady, Fire, Manic Depression and so on. Hendrix’s guitar, when you first heard it (and it was already the mid-1970s when I experienced Hendrix, at least five years after he died at 27) left an indelible mark. His unconventional use of the wah-wah pedal and amplifier feedback distortions were unlike anything that I’d heard before. Read more
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A couple of weeks back, I listed five albums that stood out for me in 2012, five that I would certainly take with me into the next year. All five—Sigur Ros’s Valtari, Patti Smith’s Banga, Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange, Japandroids’ Celebration Rock, and Dr. John’s Locked Down—are doing heavy-duty shifts on my playlists and, I’m quite sure, shall continue to do so for a bit. But if I look back again at 2012, there are a few albums that I wish I’d spent more time with. Some of them are gems that are sitting there to be discovered. Read more
You don’t realise how talented a guitarist and bluesman the young Texan, Gary Clark Jr., is till you are into the second song on his first major label album, Blak and Blue. That’s when you see the way he can wield the axe. That’s also when you begin realising why many people compare him to Jimi Hendrix. Clark can make his guitar scream and shriek and do things that take you back to the golden era of blues based guitar rock. He’s also the one of the few contemporary African American blues guitarists to have created a ripple. Most of those in the new wave of great blues guitarists have been white—at least my favourites are (Joe Bonamassa, Derek Trucks, Kenny Wayne Shepherd, Jack White, Dan Auerbach and so on). Read more
Some bands you can only enjoy listening to them live. I’ve been listening to the Athens (Georgia) based American band, Of Montreal, for a while now. They have been around since the late 1990s and have nearly a dozen studio albums out. Their music is difficult to classify—and driven by frontman, singer and guitarist Kevin Barnes, they have fused and hopped genres as widely disparate as catchy indie pop, glam rock, experimental and psychedelic rock and deeply brooding lo-fi music. That last kind of music was what characterised Of Montreal’s 2007 album, Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, a dark and very personal kind of work. I don’t know whether I was fortunate or otherwise that Hissing Fauna was the first album by the band that came my way. Read more