Delbert McClinton may open his latest disc, Live, with the song “Old Weakness”, but there is nothing weak about this cranked up live outing.
Recorded by a Norwegian radio station at the Bergen Blues Festival in Norway last year, this double disc pulls out all the stops, McClinton’s crack band amplifying the energy already apparent on his studio discs and proving that the best way to appreciate what McClinton brings to the table is to catch him live.
McClinton, who has been plying his trade for going on 45 years, is a real throw back, a white Texas bluesman who leaves everything out on the stage. That effort and intensity is captured here, with 19 songs that span his long career.
McClinton, born in Lubbock, Texas, in 1940, began playing harmonica in the bars around Lubbock and El Paso, backing everyone from Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Reed to Sonny Boy Williamson II and Bobby “Blue” Bland. He played harmonica on Bruce Channel’s 1962 number 1 hit, “Hey Baby” and spent much of the 1960s playing the Texas club circuit.
His solo career kicked off in the mid-‘70s and he managed a Top Ten hit with “Giving It Up for Your Love” in 1980, while his songs were played by a diverse array of performers, including the Blues Brothers and Emmylou Harris (who topped the country charts with his “Two More Bottles of Wine”). While he has only moderate chart success, he has won two Grammy awards and has been nominated numerous times.
McClinton often is labeled a blues singer and his blues lineage is fairly obvious, especially if you listen to some of the later Chicago bluesmen like Bland or even B.B. King. But as Steve Huey writes on All Music Guide (allmusic.com), the Texan really defies simple categorization, weaving the various strands of so-called roots music—everything from country and blues, to soul, R&B, rock and roll, and even some Latin flavorings—“as if there were no distinctions between any of them in the best time-honored Texas tradition.”
While eight of the songs on the new live disc come from his three most recent studio efforts, it truly offers listeners a career-spanning retrospective. Driven hard by the thick horn sound crafted by trumpeter Terry Townson and saxophonist Don Wise and some bruising barroom piano by Kevin McKendree, McClinton takes the audience on a joyous foot-stomping ride through the honky-tonk blues, soul, and rock-and-roll that has been his bread and butter for better than four decades.
The disc opens with two scorching blues numbers from 1997’s One of the Fortunate Few—“Old Weakness (Comin’ on Strong)” and “Leap of Faith”—and basically keeps it rolling hard as McClinton leads his band through his honky tonky version of British pub-rocker Mickey Jupp’s “I’m with You” and his own sizzling “I Wanna Thank You Baby”, a big brash rocker from 1981’s Plain from the Heart.
The difficulty with judging live albums, generally, is that they too often fail to impart the live experience to the listener. That’s because the experience depends on a lot more than just the music. The experience is dictated by a host of factors—by the stage show, perhaps, or the reaction of the audience. The simple fact is that those listeners lucky enough to be sitting in the club, the theater or the stadium when the band rumbles through its material are the only ones who can truly get the feel of the show.
But throughout this forceful, enthusiastic set, McClinton keeps the crowd engaged—you almost can hear the audience stomping and dancing in the aisles as he jams through “Squeeze Me In,” “Why Me?” (with its frenetic piano and screaming sax) and the disc’s explosive versions of “Livin’ It Down” (a mean and nasty blues) and “Giving It up for Your Love”.
Even when he slows the pace, as he does on the gritty, plaintive “I Want to Love You”, the melancholy “Don’t Want to Love You” from Room to Breath or the traditional blues “Rebecca, Rebecca” (on which he seems to be channeling the ghost of Muddy Waters, though the soul of Bobby “Blue” Bland), McClinton finds a way to keep the energy level percolating. His smoky baritone—on “Don’t Want to Love You”, for instance—manages to imply a mix of bitterness and fear and loneliness, sitting atop the simple melody as Terry Towson’s trumpet lends quiet confirmation. And on Otis Redding’s “I’ve Got Dreams to Remember,” you almost feel the crowd swaying together.
The showstopper here is his extended version of “B-Movie Boxcar Blues,” a song he recorded early in his career as a quick rave-up with Glen Clark on Delbert & Glen and then reprised in 1978 on Second Wind—the same year the Blues Brothers recorded their own muscular version of the song. On Live, McClinton stretches it out, gives each member of his amazing band a chance to shine—including a fiery harmonica solo by McClinton, himself, a performance that reminds the listener that McClinton is one of the blues harp’s legendary players.
The closing tune—a sweet, honey-drenched version of Billy “The Kid” Emerson’s old Sun Records classic, “Little Fine Healthy Thing”—is as fine a conclusion as you could find for a live show and a live disc, a rocking, soulful song that seems to sum up an entire evening of good-time blues and rock and roll, leaving the crowd wanting more and more. What else could you want from a live show—or live disc.
As I said, there is nothing weak at all about this live outing.