AUSTIN, Texas -- The view from the AMD Stage at the Austin City Limits Music Festival amounted to a sea of flushed faces under a clear blue sky, and a horizon framed by the downtown skyline. Gary Clark Jr. walked out slowly and took it all in for a moment -- the sights and the sounds, including a hungry, welcoming cheer -- before picking up his guitar, stirring an annunciatory squall and striking up the dirty-blues riff from "When My Train Pulls In."
Call it a homecoming or a victory lap, or maybe a coronation: Clark, 28, was back in his native Austin after months on the road, winning converts at practically every other major music festival in the country, from the big-time to the boutique. A guitarist of deep magnetism and tremendous feel, prominently hailed by Eric Clapton and Alicia Keys, he brought his cool swagger, his hard-nosed band and a batch of songs from his full-length major-label debut.
The album, "Blak and Blu" (Warner Bros.) presents Clark as a pop eclectic rather than a straight-up bluesman -- a point of concern for some of his most impassioned fans. But no apparent tensions were set off by Clark's sharp, commanding performance here. His singing was suave and self-assured, and his playing struck the usual balance of incandescence and unhurried poise. He seemed glad to be home. And for a town that takes pride in its music culture, his return as a conquering hero signaled a shared achievement.
Clark, who comes to San Francisco's Fillmore on Nov. 16 after stealing the show at last month's Bridge School concerts, is tall and thin, with a demeanor that turns quiet and watchful in the company of strangers.
Without a guitar in his hands, he hardly seems the type to make the boast that opens his new album: "I don't believe in competition/Ain't nobody else like me around." But onstage he exudes the rakish charisma of a guitar slinger, trained to make a strong impression right out of the gate and to give each solo the arc of a story.
"I'll tell you this: If I hadn't grown up in Austin, I don't think I'd be doing what I'm doing the way I'm doing it," Clark said. "I always knew I was into music and wanted to be involved in it, but I was 14 or something when I really checked out the scene and started walking around downtown. You could hear a country band, a blues band, a hip-hop crew, whatever. All on the same strip on the same night."
Plugging into the action on Sixth Street and elsewhere, he came under the wing of experienced bluesmen, notably Jimmie Vaughan, Stevie Ray's older brother. And he became a fixture within Austin's musical ecosystem, a scene so vibrant and self-sustaining that it can dull the incentive to set out for bigger things -- a phenomenon that Alejandro Escovedo, the veteran Texas rocker, recently described as "the velvet rut."
Clark nodded in recognition of that concept. "I found myself getting way too comfortable here," he said. Things changed decisively after a breakout performance at Clapton's Crossroads Guitar Festival in 2010. "You're gonna know my name by the end of the night," Clark sang there, in a steamrollering revision of Jimmy Reed's "Bright Lights, Big City." Within months, he was recording "The Bright Lights EP," a four-song calling card produced by Rob Cavallo, the chairman of Warner Bros. Records, and released on that label last year.
"Blak and Blu" was also produced by Cavallo, with Mike Elizondo, whose credits range from Fiona Apple to Dr. Dre. Because Clark has earned his fan base mainly through live performances, and because blues-rock partisans are constitutionally wary about the conformist pressure of the music business, the album aroused skepticism months before its release.
Cavallo allowed that the album's lead single, a horn-blaring curtain raiser called "Ain't Messin' Around," drew the ire of "the fans that were looking for the big nine-minute jam. Like, 'What is this? Did Warner Bros. force him to do this?'"
"Someone said something to me the other day: 'People like to keep you where they found you,'" Clark said. "I'm totally comfortable shaking that up."
"I was thinking that if I ever got to this point, I would love to just put it all out there, and not filter, and not be in a box."
gary clark jr.
When: 8 p.m. Nov. 16
Where: The Fillmore, 1805 Geary Blvd., San Francisco
Tickets: $28, www.livenation.com