The Master kicked off his show with a funked up version of “Do It” (Acquired Taste/Victim of Life’s Circumstances), followed by a snappy “The Part I Like Best” (Cost of Living). And may I gender-bend a quote from the latter: “He’s never in a rush, conspicuous/He makes it look so easy it’s ridiculous.” The guy is so relaxed onstage, dressed in nondescript casual clothes, a windowpane check flannel shirt, and comfy shoes, it cracks me up. Bet he could sing in his sleep.
Tonight’s lineup was different from his last appearance at the club: Steve Bassett was guesting as second keyboard player alongside regular Kevin McKendree. They’ve co-written songs on some of Bassett’s LPs; McKendree, drummer Lynn Williams, and Delbert himself all have performed on them. The other players: McClinton’s co-writer and lead guitarist Gary Nicholson, New York bass player Paul Solo? (not sure I caught his name right), sax player Dana Robbins, and trumpeter Quentin Ware.
Surprisingly, Delbert put “One of the Fortunate Few” (Cost of Living) and “Old Weakness” (One of the Fortunate Few) big crowd pleasers, early in the set instead of saving them for the encore. Fine with me! “I Want to Love You” (I’m With You) gave McKendree and Ware room to deliver sweet solos. On “New York City” (Room to Breathe) everyone got a chance to stretch, “Squeeze Me In” (Nothing Personal) bopped like a Chuck Berry tune, and in “Starting a Rumor” (Acquired Taste), the sax and horn slid under the vocal line, supporting it so smoothly, you almost forgot they were there. With a pantomimed pump-gauge action, McClinton told the horn section what he wanted next: “Shotgun Rider” (The Jealous Kind/Plain from the Heart)
Here’s where life got a little surreal. I was sitting smack up against the vocal monitors, just a few feet in front of Delbert. Some performers like to have individual focal points in the audience; some people would rather not see specific faces. I’m one of the latter; unless I have a comic zinger to deliver, I just pretend they’re not there. McClinton apparently is one of the former. By now the audience had noticed that in every other song he was delivering certain lines to me, acting the lyrics. Being an actress, I played back. Alberta Hunter was right: I’m a great audience, because I react. “Leap of Faith” (One of the Fortunate Few) is one of my (many) favorites, so I was right there.
Then he mouths that the next song he’s doing is for me, and pantomimes breaking his heart. I’m sorta hoping for “Lie No Better” or “Livin’ It Up” or “Better Off with the Blues.” But instead he launches into another song from One of the Fortunate Few: “You Were Never Mine” ─ the song that was, as I said in my review of his June show, “the only time I ever teared up during a ballad”─ I mean, the only time in my entire life of concert going and listening to music. Oy! I can’t believe he picked this song. It must be that freakin’ psychic Scorpio thing (I am, he is).
So Delbert McClinton is standing right in front of me, staring into my eyes while he’s singing, and to my utter mortification, I start to tear up. And there was no escape: the spotlight is on him, so it’s on me, the whole place is watching this, and I’m praying that nothing spills down my cheeks. Being on the edge of walking pneumonia also may have contributed to my state, and I’m glad I didn’t compound it with a shot of single malt at dinner, but all I could think was, I can’t let Delbert McClinton see me crumble!
Well, Delbert really put over that song, everybody loved it, and when he launched into “Gotta Get It Worked On” (Nothing Personal) I started to breathe again. I also heard harmonica playing like I’ve never heard before; he actually did something I don’t think I’ve heard even him do: kind of like the harp equivalent of Miles Davis leaving those spaces between notes that intensify them. Another reason to call him The Master.
While he took a break, I recovered, and Quentin Ware and his muted trumpet took us down to The Big Easy with “New Orleans Beat.” Then we got another shot of funk when Robbins stepped up to the plate blowing the most gorgeous saxophone I’ve ever seen: black with gold embroidery-like designs all over the bell. Bassett sang the blues, “You Don’t Know Me,” and Nicholson sang “Memphis Women and Chicken” as Delbert returned to the stage. When Gary started to belabor the women and chicken metaphor, talking about leg, thigh, breast, two breasts, Delbert reined him in, thank god.
Back to more crowd favorites: “Every Time I Roll the Dice” (Never Been Rocked Enough), “Sandy Beaches” (Plain from the Heart), and a version of “I’m With You” (I’m With You) that had an almost island lilt to it. One rootin’ tootin’ couple two tables away tried singing along; they were so bad, Delbert stopped and laughed, “That is some sad shit!” “Givin’ It Up” (The Jealous Kind) was the finale, causing various butts to leave their chairs and waggle around. Everyone wanted an encore, and we got a couple of goodies: “When Rita Leaves” (Nothing Personal) and “Fine Healthy Thing” (Live). And that’s never enough.