Michael McDonald// “Wide Open”

As Michael McDonald tours this winter to promote the recent release of “Wide Open,” his first album of new original material in 17 years, he is getting a boost of exposure through what might seem like unlikely collaborations with younger and decidedly hip artists.

Along with long-time friend Kenny Loggins, McDonald, 66, co-wrote a new song, “Show Me the Way” with Thundercat. McDonald last year joined Thundercat on stage at the Coachella Music Festival outside of Los Angeles to perform the song, gaining a ton of media coverage in the process.

That performance followed an appearance last March at Florida’s Okeechobee Music Festival alongside Solange Knowles singing McDonald’s 1978 smash hit with the Doobie Brothers, “What A Fool Believes.” Then there was McDonald’s guest vocal turn on the Grizzly Bear song, “While You Wait for the Others.”

It’s enough to make one wonder if this is all part of some calculated campaign to make McDonald (who has often been humorously called one of the founding fathers of the yacht rock movement for his soulful, soft rock balladry of the 1970s and ‘80s) cool for today’s young record-buying audience.

McDonald, calling in for a recent interview, however, said nothing could be further from the truth. His recent collaborations were events of opportunity that pretty much fell into his lap.

The co-write on “Show Me the Way” happened after Loggins had approached the genre-jumping Thundercat (real name Steve Bruner) after he heard about an interview in which Bruner expressed his admiration for Loggins and McDonald. That grew into an invitation from Bruner to try collaborating on a song.

In the case of Solange, getting McDonald to join her at Okeechobee fulfilled a long-time dream of hers to sing “What A Fool Believes” with the artist who made the song famous.

“I don’t know how long any of this will last,” McDonald said of the collaborations and the renewed attention he is receiving. “My experience in the music business is everything comes in waves and things get quiet for awhile and you just kind of have to stay in touch with what your muse really is and really should be. It’s anybody’s guess what that will be five years from now.”

McDonald has had two distinct periods of popularity, and a few lulls in a career that now stretches back more than four decades, so he knows of what he speaks.

A native of St. Louis, He moved to California in 1970, where his big break came when he was hired by Steely Dan to sing and play keyboards on tour and on that group’s albums.

McDonald’s work was noticed by producer/guitarist Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, an alumnus of the original Steely Dan who had gone on to join the Doobie Brothers. When guitarist Tom Johnston became ill and couldn’t participate on one of the band’s tours, McDonald was hired as his replacement. He became a full-time member of the Doobie Brothers in 1977.

McDonald, who helped push the Doobies’ sound in a more soulful and poppy direction, went on to sing some of the most popular songs recorded by that group, including “Takin’ It To The Streets,” “What A Fool Believes” and “Minute By Minute.”

The Doobies broke up in 1982, and McDonald moved onto a solo career that saw considerable early success before his fortunes faded during the 1990s and he had one of those career lulls.

But then he signed to Universal Records, which suggested that McDonald make an album of covers of Motown Records hits. It was a natural move for McDonald, who grew up listening to Motown and soul music. That covers album, 2003’s “Motown,” became a double-platinum hit that put McDonald back into the music spotlight in a big way.

A sequel, “Motown Two,” followed in 2004, and if not as popular as its predecessor, it still went gold. McDonald then completed his obligations to Universal with a 2008 album of soul-rooted covers,

“Soul Speak.”

By that time, McDonald knew he needed to get off of the covers album train.

“I was kind of maybe even hyper aware of the danger of being typecast as trying to think of different kinds of retro records to do, and I didn’t want to fall into that, although I enjoyed very much doing them (the “Motown” albums),” he said. “I grew up on the stuff. But I didn’t want to go too much further with that as an end-all concept to my career.”

One way to nip any typecasting in the bud was to do an album of original material, but years passed without such a project materializing. It wasn’t due to inactivity. McDonald started writing songs again not long after “Soul Speak.” But he wasn’t thinking these songs would make up his next studio album.

Instead McDonald actually started writing (or co-writing) and demoing tracks at a studio he was sharing with producer/drummer Shannon Forrest thinking he would pitch them to other artists to record for their albums.

But without McDonald’s knowledge, Forrest (who is currently the drummer in Toto) starting pulling up McDonald’s tracks, cutting new drum tracks for some of them and having other musicians add guitars, bass and other instrumentation to the original demos. Eventually, Forrest asked McDonald to listen to the revamped tracks.

“He played me the stuff that he had done and said ‘You know, I think there are tracks here that might be a good start for a record,’” McDonald said. “I was encouraged by hearing what he already done with just drums and adding some guitars and stuff…It was kind of enlightening for me to hear the stuff with a fresh ear and so we pursued it from there.”

So the pair went to work on the remaining songs with some session players, brought in a few guest musicians (including guitarists Warren Haynes and Robben Ford and horn players Marcus Miller and Branford Marsalis) and “Wide Open” was in the can and ready for its release last September.

The dozen songs on “Wide Open” suggest Forrest was right to want to develop McDonald’s demos. The album rates with McDonald’s best work as a solo artist, fitting comfortably in his soul/R&B/pop wheelhouse. There’s an unhurried quality to the album, as simmering and lush tunes like “Strong Enough,” “Hail Mary” and “Honest Emotion” unfold gracefully and set the tone for the album. A few other songs (the funky “Find It,” perky “Hurt Me” and the bluesy “Half Truth”) kick up the tempos and add a little edge to the proceedings, giving “Wide Open” some welcome peaks and valleys. McDonald is in fine form throughout, with his soulful burnished vocals as strong and immediately identifiable as ever.

McDonald started playing songs from his new album last summer and plans to continue featuring selections from “Wide Open” in his shows alongside his hits.

“So far, we’ve had pretty good luck with playing the new stuff live, so I think we’re going to kind of pursue that…There’s a certain thing about playing new stuff live, those little changes that happen and where you put them in the show kind of changes,” McDonald said. “So we’re going to try to play the stuff for the audiences and hopefully it will be something that’s intriguing for the audience, seeing that we haven’t had much new stuff for a long time.”

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