If the late James Brown was the hardest working man in show business, then Michael McDonald runs a close second. Ever since he becoming a member of Steely Dan in 1974, the St. Louis native has packed a lot of musical living into the four-plus decades that have elapsed since then. A five-time Grammy winner, McDonald’s distinctive blue-eyed soul singing not only found him transitioning into the ranks of the platinum album-selling ranks of The Doobie Brothers, but he’s carved out a wildly successful career that’s also found him collaborating with a wide range of artists including Aretha Franklin, Patti LaBelle, Ray Charles, Grizzly Bear, Kenny Loggins, Thundercat and even Van Halen. And while last year found him joining forces with Don Was, Warren Haynes and country singer Jamey Johnson on the Last Waltz 40, a tribute show tied to The Band’s 1976 farewell concert, McDonald also managed to find time to release Wide Open, his first album of all-original material since 2000 and latest recording in nine years. What started out as a bunch of demos he’d been working on with family friend, drummer/engineer Shannon Forrest, who he was temporarily sharing a recording space with in Nashville, evolved into a full-fledged dozen songs.
“Shannon and I had been co-opting this space. He had a big console and I had a bunch of old amps and keyboards, We both kind of developed this analog palace, if you will, of old gear,” he recalled with a laugh. “Whenever I was in town, I’d buy him dinner and we’d make these demos. Shannon’s design had been to build his own room, so when I was in town, I came by to see it. It was beautiful and in the course of pulling it together, he was using those demos to tune the room for proper mic-ing and [sonics]. He’d redone the drums on the songs and with what we’d already laid down, he thought I had the start of a record. Little by little, we built the album out of those early demos and started bringing in real bass players and guitarists to replace my pathetic guitar playing.”
McDonald and Forrest brought in an impressive array of talent to help flesh out these songs. Among the notable names who pitched in were stalwarts McDonald had worked with before including saxophonist Tom Scott, bassist Marcus Miller and guitarists Warren Haynes and Robben Ford. The latter two laid down extensive solos that perfectly complement one another on the horn-kissed blues ballad “Just Strong Enough,” which adds another surprise with a Crescent City-flavored coda that echoes a New Orleans second line brass band parade. Other noteworthy numbers include “Too Short,” a socially conscious number about redemption and hope for an ex-con that’s framed by syncopated rhythms and jangly guitar that gives it a South African township vibe. A major get was wrangling storied reedman Branford Marsalis to appear. His sinewy playing on the fusion-ish “Blessing in Disguise” was done in one take and continues to astonish McDonald to this day.
“We happened to be in California playing some dates and we found out that Branford was doing [leading] a temporary jazz professorship class at San Luis Obispo at Cal State up there. So, Shannon and I drove up in a car and believe it or not, found a studio in San Luis Obispo, which is in the middle of nowhere,” McDonald said. “We went in and Branford knocked it out in one take. That take you hear is the first actual take that he made. When he was done I heard him say into the microphone that was pretty much it and he didn’t know what else he could do. We were both there with our jaws on the floor. It had become, in that moment, such a formidable part of the whole track and it’s such a defining element on the track and recording that we had no reason to even make him try it again. To this day, when I listen to it, I just marvel at how perfect it is for him not really knowing the song that well. He kind of just felt that one through all the way to the end. It was really a brilliant performance, I thought.”
While his former bandmates in Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers will be coheadlining later in the year, McDonald will be spending the early part of 2018 touring with his crack group of backup musicians. And while he’s enthralled to be hitting the stage with his band (“To be out here with this group of musicians and able to play this stuff with guys who handle it so well is really a privilege for me,”) he’s always open to reuniting with old musical friends should the opportunity present itself.
“I haven’t been approached about any of those dates. And for the Doobies, I think it’s important to put it out there what they are at this point and time, which is one of the all-time great rock and roll bands and they sound better than ever at this point. In the meantime, they’re knocking it out of the park every night,” he said. “And I know Donald [Fagen] is always going to have a great band, it’s always going to sound good. I know it’s been difficult for him since Walter [Becker] passed. But musically, Donald is a very capable guy on stage. I wish him the best. Any chance I get to play with either one of those [acts], I always jump at it.”
Michael McDonald will be appearing on Feb. 10 at The Tilles Center for the Performing Arts, 720 Northern Blvd., Greenvale. For more information, visit www.tillescenter.org or call 516-299-3100.