Michael McDonald's Latest Album Shows the Former Doobie Brother Still Sings With Plenty of Fire

click to enlarge Michael McDonald's Latest Album Shows the Former Doobie Brother Still Sings With Plenty of Fire
Timothy White
Cleveland has been a popular stop for Michael McDonald over the years, whether he was playing solo, with the Doobie Brothers or, in his earlier years, with Steely Dan.

He carries one specific humorous memory with him when he thinks of the city. “It’s the Earl of Cleves, [who] founded Cleveland,” McDonald chuckles during a recent phone conversation. “I remember that because Donald Fagen told me that when we played Cleveland many, many years ago."

He also recalls that Fagen’s dad was from Cleveland and used to come to the gigs there.

Mcdonald returns to the area to play on Friday at Hard Rock Live. He'll be armed not only with a hefty stack of well-known classics but also with material from Wide Open, his new album. The album is his first full release of new original studio material in 17 years, but McDonald has hardly been idle during that time period.

He recorded a series of well-received Motown-themed albums, the first of which snared two Grammy nominations in 2003. Continuing to collaborate with a wide range of bands and artists, McDonald stepped into the studio with an array of friends, including his longtime compadres, the Doobie Brothers, for their 2010 album World Gone Crazy, and Toto, who enlisted McDonald to guest on a trio of songs for their most recent album, Toto XIV, released in 2015.

“You have to understand, Michael has a deep history with us too. At one point, Michael was asked to be the lead singer of our band, but he had just joined the Doobie Brothers and recorded ‘Takin’ It To The Streets.’ So we missed it by that much,” Toto guitarist Steve Lukather explained in a 2015 interview, when talking about how McDonald became involved with the Toto XIV album. “He came in and hung with us and we did some subtle Michael McDonald [stuff]. It’s such a distinguishable voice that if you have him on something, you go, ‘Oh, that’s Michael McDonald’ — it can’t be anybody else. It was really great to have Mike back and we love him to death. He’s one of the great voices and certainly one of the greatest cats ever.”

The reverence that Lukather has for McDonald, both as a performer and as a friend, is something that’s shared by seemingly everybody who comes in contact and has the chance to work with him. He’s seen his music continue to be embraced by new generations of bands and artists. In recent years, he popped up on a song from Brooklyn indie band Grizzly Bear and more recently, Thundercat tapped McDonald and Kenny Loggins to co-write his single “Show You The Way,” a song which McDonald himself showed up to perform with Thundercat at this year’s Coachella Festival.

“It is definitely very flattering and totally unexpected. You know, I think every generation of musician and/or recording artists [experiences something like this],” McDonald says. “I think in the '80s, we felt like the wrong side of the fence on The Walking Dead or something. [Laughs] Because nobody wanted to know about anything from the '70s. I remember that I was writing with a guy, a friend of mine, and he stopped me in the middle when we were writing a song. He goes, 'Look, you’ve got to figure out how to play like you’re from the '80s. You’re so '70s, your style of playing. You need to be more '80s.'”

It’s understandable then, that when you add a few decades, one could understand why McDonald might have a few reservations. Happily, his phone never stopped ringing. and the recent collaborations gave him a different perspective.

“Every time I see these nostalgic '80s shows or hear a nostalgic radio station [focused on] the '80s, I laugh,” he says. “Because I think, ‘Shit, I was already old in the '80s, what chance have I got?’ But you know, we kind of went through that period and then here we are in the millennium, and I guess everything that’s old and creepy is new again at some point.”

Collaborator Shannon Forrest [also a drummer, currently touring with Toto] co-produced the new album with McDonald; the two go back quite a few years. First, as McDonald explains, he met his future producer at a very young age, when Forrest was about 15 and dating an old friend’s daughter in junior high school. His father owned a studio in Nashville where he did orchestration work, so Forrest was in the recording studio environment from his earliest days. Eventually, once he grew up, he found himself in a partnership with McDonald when the two shared studio space in Nashville.

“I had a house and a studio where I stored all of my gear. For me, a studio was always kind of like an oversized storage bin for all of my old gear,” McDonald says. “I would always set up some kind of recording situation, typically pretty primitive, just so I could demo ideas and songs. Somebody in my crew would help me out, and we’d put together a rig, and typically, they would engineer for me because I’m not very adept with that technical stuff."

Forrest was good at the technical stuff, and like McDonald, he owned a lot of old analog gear. So they were able to combine all of their gear.

"He had a great old SSL console, a big thing, and I had just enough room for it in this house,” explains McDonald.

While Forrest began to use the space professionally, McDonald would also come in from time to time and lay down demos of song ideas. Forrest would often play drums on the recordings. Time passed and when Forrest eventually moved out and put together his own studio, he pulled up the files of the sessions that he had done with McDonald and used them, playing his drums in the new space, to help tune the new room. Listening to what they had recorded, Forrest got in touch with McDonald.

“He goes, ‘I gotta tell ya, I think you’ve got the start of a record here.’ So we sat and I listened to it and just the new drums alone, made the whole thing come up a notch," says McDonald. "It sounded good, and all of the sudden, the songs seemed a little bit more legit to me and I thought, ‘Well, you know, you might have a point.’ So from that point on, we started reshaping all of these tracks that we had cut with real guitar players and real keyboards and real bass players and horns and stuff. We were surprised along the way, how some of these tracks came to life with each and every new overdub that we put on it.”

While it might have taken 17 years to arrive, longtime fans will find that Wide Open is an album that is more than worth the wait and quite possibly the best record that McDonald has put out as a solo artist. McDonald wrote or co-wrote 11 out of the album’s 12 songs, and “Half-Truth,” one particular standout, burns with an energy that shows that he still has plenty of fire, both vocally and musically, accentuated by an intense guitar solo from Dann Huff.

“That’s a perfect example of the range of what happened with this record. Because that demo, originally, was me on acoustic guitar, playing the harmonica to a little drum machine. It was like a little beat box drum machine,” McDonald explains. “What you’re hearing in the beginning of the song was the whole track. That’s the original vocal for the most part, too. But all of the guitars and drums and everything were added later. That’s my neighbor down the road from me, Lanice Morrison, playing bass on it, and he played on the original demo, a little bit later, just because I wanted to get real bass on it. But everything else was after the fact. The song kind of became a rock track by proxy."

So how did things move in that direction? Well, that’s another interesting tale.

“I think in its origin, my son showed me the chords. Those are just some chords that he had. Basically, we weren’t even writing a song. He was going, ‘You know, when you play a C, you should play it like this, it’s more open, that way you’re not playing a C triad on guitar every time you go there.’ He goes, ‘It’s easier to get to and it kind of leaves some of the intervals out and then the other people who are playing can kind of color the chord without clashing with what you’re playing.’ You know, he was giving me a guitar lesson basically.”

His son, Dylan McDonald, came up with an chord progression as he was showing his father and it was something that McDonald himself continued to think about after they parted company.

“I started messing with it some more and then my brother-in-law and I started writing lyrics. I said, ‘What do you think of this?’ He wrote the melody and lyrics to this chord progression of my son’s,” McDonald recalls. “So in a way, it was kind of this family affair, a song that we wrote [together]. You know, I was thrilled to be able to write something with my son, because I really love his writing — although he and I, we find it difficult to write together, because we’re father and son. So this is kind of a way that we were able to kind of sneak the event up on both of ourselves, by not having to be in the same room at the same time. But the beginning of the song was most definitely his idea and but for those chords, the song wouldn’t have existed for sure.”

As an album, Wide Open evolved in a similar fashion. McDonald toured with Toto in the summer of 2014 and several members of the band can be found sprinkled in the credits of the songs on the new album. Allman Brothers Band and Gov’t Mule singer-guitarist Warren Haynes shares guitar duties with fellow guitarist Robben Ford on “Just Strong Enough, which also features a guest appearance from the Levee Horns. Both Haynes and the horn section spent time on the road with McDonald over the past year touring a 40th anniversary tribute to the Band’s classic swan song, The Last Waltz.

“We were on the bus one night and he said, 'Hey man, I know your schedule is crazy, but do you want to play on this track?' He thought of me for the one particular song,” Haynes remembers during a separate interview. “I said, 'Absolutely, we’ll make it work!' I just went in and played a bunch of stuff and sent it to him and let them sort it out. But he’s such an easy person to work with. A perfectionist no doubt, but really just a sweet human being.”

McDonald says that the experience of doing things like the Last Waltz tour had an important effect and influence on how the record developed, without a doubt.

“There’s so much about this record that happened only because of certain circumstances like that," he says. "The Levee Horns played on the record; those are guys that were with the Last Waltz tour. It’s probably the main reason I stay as active in other things as I always have been kind of prone to do. You know, I’m one of those people that I really enjoy doing things other than my own music because there’s always something that comes from that for me.”

It’s given him plenty of important life lessons that he’s been happy to pass onto his son as he ventures down his own musical path.

“My son and I would talk, and he was going, ‘You know, man, I don’t know if I could do these Top 40 gigs.' I go, ‘Man, you know, you’re going to look back, and you’re going to realize that most of what you learned about what you do, you learned at some Top 40 bar somewhere.’ There’s so much to be learned from every one of those experiences. Every time you play for somebody else or with somebody else, you’re going to come back with something that you didn’t have before. That’s just kind of the way it works. Music is a very experiential thing and education. For me, this record is really a real representation of just the gigs I’ve been doing, if nothing else, in the last 10 years.”

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