The blues don’t do sunshine. So with severe desert wind and slanting rain showers marring the first day of Coachella, the voodoo children stole the show. Neither Gary Clark Jr. nor the Black Keys will be mistaken for bourbon in the paper cup, Delta blues bootleggers, but both ensured that the genre of Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters has a healthy future with the Instagram generation.
This isn’t your great-grandfather’s finger picked, hellhound on your trail, Mississippi blues. It’s not the rollicking funk of the great Chicago masters like Muddy and Elmore James. And it builds beyond the bruised vinyl psychedelia of your pops’ favorites like Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughn, and Cream. This is the blues as it jukes and moans in the modern era. Watch Gary Clark Jr, a 28-year old, ax-wielding wunderkind from Austin. Every generation has its chosen one and right now, this is Clark’s time. He has been co-signed by the proper guitar gods (B.B. King, Jeff Beck, Buddy Guy) and got his start thanks to Clifford Antone, the Austin club owner who helped the Vaughn brothers become the baddest.
Coachella will never be a roots music mecca. The Sahara tent swarms with MDMA-scrambled rave kids. Its guitar rock typically skews to the arch British side—Oasis, Wu Lyf, and Pulp play major stage sets this weekend. But the blues is having a strange renaissance. The Alabama Shakes stole SXSW and Los Angeles has produced blues-tinted rising star Hanni El Khatib, whose sophomore album is being produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys. The latter were here, but on Friday, they had to follow Gary Clark Jr. The near-consensus pick for Friday’s highlight, Clark donned dark sunglasses, a big beard, and a black felt hat like a wicked western villain. With gravity-spurning guitar agility and rough-hewn Texas blooz baritone, he mimicked the Coachella climate vicissitudes. A shaft of sunlight would curl out from a cloud and Clark would rip a guitar solo sunny enough to inflict hallucinations on the hippy kids. Then the clouds would sulk back and he’d descend into Lone Star state bleakness, with rumbling licks violent enough to crack ozone.
Jimi Hendrix is the closest node of comparison and as silly as it is to make comparisons to the original potentate of Purple Haze, Clark Jr. is gifted enough to not make them seem completely baseless. As if to accentuate the point, Clark lit into a cover of “Third Stone from the Sun,” a sly perhaps unintended node to Hendrix’s early jazz and hard rock fusion. Backed by a full band, Clark, like his peers, can’t help but ignore the previous 35 years of music history. Should you look close, you can see hints of hip hop swagger and R&B before the “B” was banished.
The Black Keys exist in a similar dimension. Headlining on the main stage, the opening music included “When the MCs Came,” a 15-year old song from the Wu-Tang’s GZA. Though their music draws from the hypnotic terror of Junior Kimbrough, they blend garage rock, psychedelia, country, and the lung-choked Goodyear grit of their hometown of Akron. Watching them run through their hit-laced catalog at Coachella, including “Everlasting Light,” “Lonely Boy” and “Tighten Up,” the crowd bobbed and weaved, less colorful than the Sahara tent, but equally vibrant. The knock on the Black Keys is that they have three variations of the same good song, but you could say that about most of the Blues masters too. Blues is about working within limitations, running into the wall, curling your fists into a ball, and wailing. It’s not supposed to be fancy. –Jeff Weiss