Decades before Americana became an umbrella term to describe hard-to-categorize roots music, Delbert McClinton was tearing up roadhouses with his own "what-do-you-call-that?" blend of rhythm-and-blues, rock, soul, and honky-tonk.
At 74, the Nashville-based Texas native is no longer on the road constantly, but when he does perform, he shows little sign of slowing down. He made that clear Friday night at the Keswick Theatre in Glenside, bringing his rollicking roadhouse spirit to the Philadelphia suburbs.
The performance's vitality reflected McClinton's creative rebirth as a writer, something he had drifted away from after the 1970s, when he first distinguished himself as a vivid, concise, and street-savvy lyricist.
He has done some of his best work over the last 20 years, and examples were sprinkled throughout the set: "New York City," animated by a jazzy, hipsterish vibe; "Squeeze Me In," all fast-talking swagger; "Down in Mexico," a noirish tale of betrayal; and knockout ballads including the yearning "Starting a Rumor" and the border-flavored "When Rita Leaves."
There was also the gospel-tinged "Leap of Faith," written by compadres Glen Clark and Gary Nicholson, which was dedicated to the late B.B. King, who played on the original studio recording. Meanwhile, McClinton's '70s classic "Two More Bottles of Wine," better known from Emmylou Harris' version, rocked harder than ever. Other oldies, such as "Back to Louisiana" and "Shaky Ground," and his one pop hit, 1981's "Giving It Up for Your Love," also retained their boisterous freshness.
McClinton's voice has long had a sandpaperish, frayed-around-the-edges quality, giving it a character that suits the gritty, real-life milieu of his songs. In perhaps one concession to age - besides a midset break - the harmonica player who once gave lessons to a young John Lennon played little himself, conserving his lung power for his singing.
McClinton looked to be having fun with his six-piece band, and at least some of the time he appeared to be making song selections on the spot. He also gave guitarist Bob Britt, saxophonist Dana Robbins, trumpeter Quentin Ware, and keyboardist Dennis Wage plenty of room to shine without disrupting the head-long momentum of the individual songs or the set.
For all the classic strains in his music, when you see Delbert McClinton, you're seeing someone who is not so much carrying on a tradition as cementing his stature as an American original.