Gary Clark Jr. recently recorded a live-in-studio jam with his band for iTunes as part of the digital retailer's ongoing iTunes Sessions series. Clark's set presents seven songs from his major label debut Blak & Blu and a couple blues covers to round out the set. I dislike digital-only releases but they're an inevitable part of the new music frontier and given the choice of hearing more Gary or less- well, that's not a decision at all!
What's best about iTunes Session is the elimination of the slick, shiny production that marred Blak & Blu and robbed the songs of the power and passion present in Clark's music. This may not be a live album in the traditional sense, taken from a gig in front of a paying crowd, but we get that same energy and looseness proving once again the audience is a prop when the playing is this good.
"Ain't Messin' 'Round" benefits from this no-frills approach more than any song on this set. I liked the song when it was released as the first B&B single but didn't love the way it was presented. Clark's vocal is excellent and I love the horn arrangement but the sound was scrubbed almost to the point of sterility. We lose the horn section as this is Clark and his touring band but gain grit and toughness, revealing a substance to the song not as evident on the record.
The gentle soul of "Please Go Home" was better on Clark's self-titled independent release as the string arrangement on B&B feels forced and unnecessary. Stripping away the excess and bringing the song back to its essential elements elevates the beautiful falsetto vocal and a tasty guitar solo both smooth and snapping.
There is a strong current of the living blues in Clark's music and its influence on his work is undeniable but he doesn't limit nor define himself as a bluesman. The two covers -- Albert King's "Oh, Pretty Woman" and Albert Collins' "If Trouble Were Money" -- allow us to hear him excel within the idiom that has inspired and informed so much of his work. Clark's band doesn't reproduce the same groove as the legendary Stax house band on "Woman" but they don't disappoint and neither does Clark.
"Bright Lights" has been with us for a long time (and so have many of these songs if you're a desperate Encylopedia Nerdicus who paid exorbitant prices to get Clark's out-of-print, indie releases that preceded the Bright Lights EP and Blak & Blu) and a hit is still a hit no matter how many times I hear it. This is one of the songs on the album where the professional production didn't hamper the song but it's still better live where it's given room to breathe and stretch.
The highlight of this set also happens to be the best track from Blak & Blu, "Numb." The performance itself is searing but it's what happens before and after the band plays it that exemplifies what's so right about this iTunes Session. He seems to forget he's not onstage, calling out "Yeah... 'Numb!'" before tearing into that monster riff. I'm not sure where he thinks he flubbed it because this is a stunner. The grinding riff reminiscent of The Beatles' "Come Together" hits like a heavyweight's fist and the solo scorches. He tells his band when they're finished he messed up the singing but doesn't care because he had so much fun playing it but there is nothing lacking in the passion or execution.
That's the beauty of this set and what makes it an essential purchase. This sounds like a private party, an after hours jam session and we get to experience a casual looseness as well as the precision of professionals plying their craft at such a high level you just might find yourself listening to these versions more than those on the album.