Most entertainers slow down, step away, or flat-out retire after a few decades in the business.
Not so Michael McDonald, who either never got the memo about easing into his golden years…or simply chose to ignore it.
But given McDonald’s prolific career as a Steely Dan session ace, hit-making member of The Doobie Brothers, and sensational soloist, it’s likely he funneled a few musings about aging gracefully into his new album, Wide Open.
McDonald’s first collection of original material since 2000’s Blue Obsession certainly finds that maturity on full display: The R&B legend rocks out and waxes eloquent with guests Robben Ford (guitar), Warren Haynes (Gov’t Mule), and Branford Marsalis (sax) on a dozen introspective cuts about getting older, growing wiser, being thankful, and living clean—physically and spiritually.
Okay, so the silver-haired soul-singer has got some fresh fare. But what else has the Yacht Rock commandant been up to since the ‘80s?
Well, what hasn’t he done?
In his 45-year career the Ferguson, Missouri native has written for—or performed with—such diverse stars as Carly Simon, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Van Halen, Toto, Ambrosia, Judy Collins, Brad Paisley, and Kenny Loggins. He released a triptych of acclaimed soul compilations in the early ‘00s (Motown, Motown Two, Soul Speak), recorded some holiday discs (In the Spirit of Christmas, Through the Many Winters, This Christmas), toured with Donald Fagen and Boz Scaggs (as The Dukes of September), and continues to champion his favorite charities (Surfrider Foundation, Heal the Ocean, Artists Against Hunger & Poverty).
More recently, McDonald sang a hilarious “Row, Row, Your Boat” with Justin Timberlake on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon, contributed to funk bassist Thundercat’s (aka Steven Bruner) 2017 disc Drunk, road tripped with Ohio piano man Marc Cohn (“Walking in Memphis”), and joined forces (last summer) with Loggins and Christopher Cross.
He’ll appear (again) on a PBS Soundstage special later this fall.
For now, the five-time Grammy winner is out promoting Wide Open by sliding back behind his keyboard and belting out the tunes for enraptured audiences with his inimitable band. We weren’t disappointed when we caught McDonald and company last night (September 12) at the Hard Rock in Northfield, Ohio. Here are five reasons you should see him, too.
1. McDonald has still got the touch, that voice, the aura.
Some veteran artists stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the hits that brought them fame (feigning “integrity”) or deliberately omit vintage material from sets in order to accommodate new songs. Others fall ill or infirm, and can’t quite nail the high notes like they used to. Not so McDonald, who’s sounding better (and looking healthier) than ever—and who obligingly rolled out most of his familiar favorites for a packed “Rocksino” house on Wednesday. Sure, samples from Wide Open were on the agenda. And McD cracked some self-deprecating jokes about growing old (“The phrase ‘wee, wee hours’ takes on new meaning!”), too. But you couldn’t have come away from the gig more satisfied if you’d written out your requests for McDonald ahead of time. That’s because….
2. McDonald plays all the sweet solo hits, dazzling duets, and movie tunes.
For every chart-topping tune McDonald’s graced with his distinctive pipes, he’s scored another with an equally renowned accomplice. Originally recorded in 1983 with James Ingram, “Yah Mo Be There” was an up-tempo opener for admiring Ohioans. McDonald gave a shout out to writer Rod Temperton, who rose to fame in the disco band Heatwave and wrote a slew of hits (“Thriller,” “Rock With You”) for Michael Jackson and other pop icons.
McDonald may have tracked “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” with his sisters in ’82, but in Northfield those cooing vocals were assigned to vocalist Drea Rhenee—who also assumed Patti LaBelle’s part during “On My Own.”
“She works twice as hard as us boys,” McDonald complimented. “She takes the edge off all our middle-aged ugly!”
3. Ain’t nothin’ like Michael singin’ Motown.
Wednesday’s menu boasted three soulful covers with “Ain’t” in their titles. “Ain’t No Way” was a respectful, spine-tingling Michael-and-Drea only tribute to Aretha Franklin, who recorded the song (written by her younger sister) on her 1968 LP Lady Soul. “I Can Let Go Now” (from McDonald’s 1982 solo debut If That’s What it Takes) was rendered as an exquisite solo piano ballad.
Later, McDonald delivered a two-shot of Ashford & Simpson from his first Motown release: Both “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” were silky, sweet testaments to the enduring power of Marvin Gaye, who recorded the 1967-68 originals (with Tammi Terrell). The band’s interpretation of Gaye classic “What’s Goin’ On” was a terrific encore number and—given today’s headlines—still (sadly) topical.
4. McDonald dusts off the Doobie ditties.
“Here to Love You” might not have received the radio play afforded other Doobie Brothers smashes in the ‘70s, but it generated momentum in the program’s second slot. Michael saved his more beloved DB masterpieces for the finale: “Minute by Minute” and “What a Fool Believes” brought fans to their feet and got them singing along. “Takin’ It to the Streets” replenished everyone’s Carter-era hipness (if not hirsuteness) for the trip home.
5. McDonald’s talented band has both finesse and feel.
The 66-year old McDonald was supported by a band of ace players and backup singers whose robust rhythms and lush harmonies provided plenty of space for him to stretch out. But McDonald returned the favor by affording each auxiliary musician some room of his (or her) own to shine.
California guitarist Bernie Chairavelle sizzled on Wide Open offerings “Find It in Your Heart” and “Just Strong Enough.” McDonald’s longtime six-stringer wielded several instruments throughout the night, including a crimson Gibson SG, a cherry red Gretsch, a sunburst Fender Telecaster, and a champagne-tinged Rickenbacker.
Bassist Jacob Lowery (Amy Grant, Michael W. Smith) generated sinewy grooves on Running Scared movie theme “Sweet Freedom” while saxophonist Mark Douthit wailed over the top. Pat Coil bolstered McDonald’s electric piano (and Yamaha Reface mini-synth) passages with string and horn textures on Hammond organ and a Yamaha Motif.
“Does my voice still carry?” McDonald pondered on the prayer-like (but pulsating) new “Hail Mary.”
Yes, sir, it does. Across velvety, effervescent oceans of smooth.
And it did in Ohio, even when McDonald played guitars—like an Orange Gretsch and a Gibson ES-330—midway through the show. He’s no Joe Bonamassa, but hey, if Billy Joel can crush a few chords on “Matter of Trust” or “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” then Michael McDonald is entitled to get off his bum and strum for a few minutes, too.
Blue-eyed, bespectacled McDonald said he wrote “Half Truth” with his son, Dylan, who now performs in his own group (The Avians). He dedicated “Beautiful Child” to departed childhood friend Chuck Sabatino, with whom he played in upstart bands in and around St. Louis before venturing to L.A. to join Steely Dan.
McDonald now resides in Nashville.