When you have Grammys producer Ken Ehrlich, rocker Michael Des Barres and a flock of dancing young women all rushing the stage at a private event, that’s a good sign you’ve got it going on. Even L.A.’s biggest heat wave of the year so far couldn’t keep a mixed music industry audience away from the sunburned lip of the stage as Gary Clark Jr. took over the old A&M Records lot in Hollywood — now the Jim Henson Studios — for a late afternoon Sunday BBQ that climaxed with a very, very flame-grilled set of his new music.
It was “This Land,” Clark’s latest and most acclaimed album to date, that was being celebrated and promoted at the casual cookout, which reminded a lot of attendees of South by Southwest — the good old days version of SXSW, anyway, when the main fare tended toward actual native Texas music as well as ribs. Local favorite Bludso’s stood in for Iron Works or Stubb’s with its meat-falling-off-the-bone catering. Clark stood in for no one as he catered to the tastes of music-biz execs and workers with an appreciation for the crossroads where bluesy roots music and classic-sounding commercial rock intersect. Texas flags were stationed inside the lot for the appearance by Austin’s reigning musical hero.
Among the attendees: actor Don Cheadle (who hosted “Saturday Night Live” during Clark’s recent musical guest spot), incoming “Terminator” star Gabriel Luna, Ehrlich’s fellow Grammy honchos David Wild and Chantal Saucedo (who called it “the best event of the year”), CBS exec Jack Sussman, musicians Sheila E and Greg Phillinganes, well-known stylist Lisa Cooper and Dick Clark Productions’ Mark Shimmel.
The current Warner camp was represented by, among many others, co-chairmen Aaron Bay-Schuck and Tom Corson, along with Lenny Waronker, the former longtime head of the label who remains in the fold to work with some of the more classic — or classic-sounding — artists and is Clark’s A&R guru. Also on hand from Warner were publicists Laura Swanson and Rick Gershon, who peeked into an office mere yards from where Clark was shredding where they’d spent years in a prior century promoting A&M releases. Revisiting familiar climes, as well, was Clark’s manager, Scooter Weintraub, who logged many hours on the lot in the ’90s as Sheryl Crow’s manager. They joined a not incidental part of the Clark camp: the musician’s wife, Australian model-actress Nicole Trunfio, and their kids, who appeared to be enjoying the run of a lot where Kermit emblems now abound.
The guest list was also booker city — including Jim Pitt (“Jimmy Kimmel”), Deirdre Dod (“The Talk”), Christopher McDonald (“The Kelly Clarkson Show”), Steven Schillaci (“The Real”), Joe Siyam (“ET”), Jamie Park (“Access Hollywood Live”), Roey Hershkovitz (ex-“Conan”), Lori Teig (“NFL Network”) and others.
Preceding the concert portion, Scott Goldman said they’d be following the format he employs on a weekly basis as the Grammy Museum events calendar’s primary host — Q&A followed by performance — although at the museum, the interview tends to be long and the gig portion shorter, proportions that were flipped for this party. Goldman spoke with Clark for 10 minutes, at first finding the rocker a bit reticent (“My vocabulary isn’t great, because I just went to high school,” he said, struggling for phraseology when asked about any grand motivations behind the new album). But Clark quickly warmed up — in every conceivable way, on the unshaded stage — as he talked about how he was “introduced to my history” by Langston Hughes and later found a higher calling in the soul greats of the ’70s.
(Pictured below, from left: Scott Goldman, Gary Clark Jr. and Warner Records’ co-chairman and COO Tom Corson)
Talking about the lyrical shifts on “This Land,” Clark said, “It’s not just about me,” referring to having become a family man. “You know, I was just repeating the same thing: I was running around living a musician’s lifestyle – going out and getting drunk and doing whatever. Now I have other things to do.”
“I grew up listening to artists like Curtis Mayfield, and Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Goin’ On,’ and James Brown. There’s the party songs and love records … but to be in this world with two young kids and reflecting on moments that piss you off and aren’t pleasant to deal with … I think music helps. Songs do that for me, help you not feel alone and help you relate.”
What was initially planned as a half-hour set extended to 11 songs performed in just over an hour, with only the opening “Bright Lights” (from 2012’s “Blak and Blu”) not being from the latest album. The aforementioned Marvin Gaye strain was represented with the falsetto-laden “Feed the Babies,” reggae-rock swagger popped up in “Feelin’ Like a Million,” and brooding sensuality got its turn in “I Got My Eyes on You,” replaced by maternal gratitude in “Pearl Cadillac.” The punky “Get Into Something” established that he can slum his way through garage-rock as effectively as he can strike grander notes in his more elevated blues ballads.
Unremarked upon — but maybe inescapable to the more inattentive ears on hand — is that the refrain of the socially charged title track from “This Land” contains the lyric “Go back where you come from”… a line that just coincidentally happened to echo Sunday’s top political news story.
Earlier this year, Variety‘s review described “This Land” as “a resurgence of classic album-oriented rock, but it’s also a first-rate soul record. And those things don’t have to be mutually exclusive. … He seems determined to make a run at becoming a bigger rock star by way of a lot of old-school R&B sounds that happen to be highly compatible with R&R. That intersection is a hell of a crossroads, for Clark. (Blues allusion only slightly intended.)”
Although Clark has understandably sought to be better appreciated as a singer/songwriter and not “just” a guitar hero, there was plenty of the latter to make attendees swoon in the heat. Clark has a little humble-brag phrase that he busts out at the end of some songs that end with particularly fiery fretwork: “Something like that.”
(Pictured below, from left: Manager Scooter Weintraub, Warner Records’ Lenny Waronker and CEO/co-chairman Aaron Bay-Schuck.)