Gary Clark Jr. brings the blues to headlining performance at Mass MoCA’s FreshGrass festival

“Do you like blues? I’m just being nice, I don’t care if you like it or not”

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Caitlin Reardon/Daily Collegian (2022)

By Caitlin Reardon, Assistant News Editor

This past weekend, Sept. 23-25, the sounds of acoustic pickings and banjo rolls echoed far and wide through the vast Berkshire mountains from Mass MoCA’s FreshGrass festival in North Adams.

The festival acquired a handful of esteemed artists for this year’s lineup, such as Old Crow Medicine Show, Taj Mahal, Trampled By Turtles, Tanya Tucker, The Del McCoury Band, Skip Marley, Yola and more. Gary Clark Jr., however, turned up his amp and made quite the rock-and-roll impression as the event’s Saturday headliner.

From Austin, Texas, the bluesy musician brought his southern influences to the folk-based event. Clark Jr. and his band played a lengthy set infused with all the necessary elements that weld rock, blues and emotion together, concocting a soulful performance that captivated his audience.

Accompanied by four other band members, Clark Jr. walked on stage in a green, tailored suit and wide-brimmed hat with an orange peace sign stitched into the side of it. He appeared humble yet sophisticated through his impassive demeanor. Studio lights paneled the backdrop, creating an ambience of stardom, fit for Clark Jr.’s suave aura. Picking up the electric guitar, the set kicked off immediately with a fast-paced opener. Clark Jr.‘s guitar skillmanship became apparent from the very beginning as he worked effortlessly to stay right on top of the beat.

“What About Us,” a popular track of Clark Jr.‘s, specifically showed off his vocal abilities from near the top of the set. With a voice as strong as can be, Clark Jr. dipped in and out of his high and low register with ease, adding twangy inflections for a more funk flair.

Soon enough, Clark Jr. began tapping into a more emotional side. “Our Love” was a personal favorite of mine. He took his time to establish the drama of the song. A tender, moody tone was felt in the hearts of those watching through Clark Jr.’s soft-spoken falsetto and intentional gradation to intensity.

He and his band executed a gritty instrumental texture through partnership of the percussion, keys and bass that had heads steadily bobbing up and down throughout the crowd. A two-minute, heavy-hitting guitar solo by Clark Jr., reminiscent of Jimi Hendrix’s sound and style, euphorically resolved into the pleading line, “You were my baby,” as Clark Jr. sang with an angsty cry. From this point, I was totally immersed in and impressed by his sheer musicianship.

The band’s slick blues carried cohesively right into “Feed the Babies” thereafter. A slower but weighty drum beat wielded through the silky quality of the melody, tying both the authoritative, revolutionary rock-and-roll sound to more sultry tones. The keys player improved along for over two minutes. This added a much-appreciated component to the set as Clark Jr. could let his other band members contribute to the jam sessions. This dissonant and fleshy key solo truly made the song even more special in its own context of being a more activism-rooted track.

Clark Jr. stripped things back for a heart-wrenching rendition of “Church.” While the studio version is already instrumentally simple, Clark Jr. painted a more moving performance solely with the warmth of the electric guitar as opposed to the original’s raw acoustic, his playing harmonica and the haunting vocal support of his band members. Clark Jr.’s voice truly stood out here. Executing a controlled vibrato through the high and minor notes and a hearty, expressive middle register, the song marked a beautiful moment in the set that concert-goers appreciated.

Not letting the temperature simmer for too long, Clark Jr. and his band turned up the heat once again for “Low Down Rolling Stone.” His playing produced a full, deep fabric with lots of dynamics, whether that be through his maneuvering of the whammy or strumming approach. The music he plays is purposeful, not just because his discography is objectively good, but because the way in which he plays is so calculated.

After a psychedelic, Pink Floyd-esque keys solo, Clark Jr. played another face-melter of a guitar solo. The bright fluorescent lights spanned the crowd and visually immersed us in the experience, as if the music wasn’t convincing us enough already.

Clark Jr. delivered a powerful performance to North Adams that will remain memorable to those who witnessed it. The set was a mix of his latest record, “This Land,” released in 2019 and his older albums. I love how every song connected to the last despite the difference in when it was produced. This cohesive balance of popular songs along with the improvisational jams that blossomed on stage colored his original discography with deeper meaning.

“I’m grown now, so I’m gonna play it the way I want,” he said to the crowd during his set. This statement highlighted the free nature he emanates in its entirety. He is unapologetically an artist who respects the classic playing style of guitar while delineating his fresh take on the blues and rock genre.

Clark Jr. is one unique artist who takes his audience on a journey of blues and soul. If you get the chance to see him live, take it; you are in for one turbulent ride, but Clark Jr. still finds a way to make it as rich as velvet.

Caitlin Reardon can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @caitlinjreardon.