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.

Reviving the blues: Gary Clark Jr has been making waves with his raucous guitar and smooth singing. (Photos: Getty Images)

Reviving the blues: Gary Clark Jr has been making waves with his raucous guitar and smooth singing. (Photos: Getty Images)

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 Gary Clark Jr's second album, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, the first thing that strikes you is restraint.

On Gary Clark Jr's second album, The Story of Sonny Boy Slim, the first thing that strikes you is restraint.

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.

Walk into the dark side: In his new solo album, Faith in the Future, the booze-soaked vocals of Craig Finn (of The Hold Steady) tell stories that aren't going to make you happy.

Walk into the dark side: In his new solo album, Faith in the Future, the booze-soaked vocals of Craig Finn (of The Hold Steady) tell stories that aren't going to make you happy.

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.

Also watch: Craig Finn – Maggie I’ve Been Searching For Our Son

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?

Craig Finn. (Photo: Getty Images)

Craig Finn. (Photo: Getty Images)

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.

Stuff of legends: There are two tracks on Miles Davis's 1970 album that are probably the finest pieces of electric jazz I've heard.

Stuff of legends: There are two tracks on Miles Davis's 1970 album that are probably the finest pieces of electric jazz I've heard.

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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Last week, in the middle of a particularly hectic phase at work, Bruce Springsteen came to my aid. Just as long hours and frayed tempers were threatening to take their toll on my sanity came the announcement that the Boss was dropping a new EP with four never-before-released songs. The EP’s called American Beauty (I know that the use of that title could seem like blasphemy to many Deadheads, but never mind). As I write this, one single from American Beauty has been streaming all over the Internet. It’s called Hurry Up Sundown and it’s a classic rock and roll track, upbeat, lyrically direct and quintessentially Springsteen-esque: just what the doctor ordered if you’ve been stressed out at work. Read more
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My daughter, about to be eight, has an earworm. You know, a piece of music that seems stuck in your ear so seemingly permanently that you just couldn’t get it out. It’s a song that she hums, sings and dances with vigorously even though it’s not being played anywhere. And I’m happy. Delighted, actually, because the song happens to be Lonely Boy by The Black Keys. Actually, the duo that makes up The Black Keys may also seem like an earworm for Download Central, in case you are one of those readers who for some strange reason follows this column fairly regularly—I don’t know how many times I have written about them, obsessively, compulsively and, perhaps also, maniacally.
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When three bands that you like release their new albums on the same day, you have a problem of plenty and a difficult choice to make. So, on May 4, when The Hold Steady released Heaven is Whenever, The New Pornographers put out Together and Broken Social Scene popped out the curiously named Forgiveness Rock Record, their first album in five years, I went and bought digital versions of all three online. After some fretting over which one to listen to first, I chose Broken Social Scene. I was glad I did that. Read more

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Last weekend, I did something that is totally at odds with what Download Central is supposed to do. Instead of sitting at my computer and scouring the Internet for downloads or streams of new music, I actually went out and watched a rock band performing live. The gig was at Delhi’s kitschy Hard Rock Café (but then aren’t all HRCs meant to be kitschy?) and the band was Hurricane Bells who hail from Brooklyn, New York.

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When I wrote a couple of months back about The Hold Steady and the lure of their frontman Craig Finn’s harsh, nasal, sometimes unmelodic, but totally endearing voice, I got an email from Rachel Tanzer who used to handle their artist relations before she moved out of the US to work in India. Rachel urged me to check out Lifter Puller, a band that Finn fronted in the early 1990s before The Hold Steady was formed. Read more

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The best thing about scouring for music on the Internet is that you discover new bands and musicians constantly. Sometimes these are brand new outfits, lurking under the radar, like hidden treasure that’s waiting to be discovered. Read more

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