Michael McDonald joyously kicked off an array of vibrant holiday programming at The Music Center at Strathmore with a Christmas concert that blended some of his timeless classics with modern interpretations of contemporary Christmas hits.
There are few voices that are quite as recognizable as that of the legendary five-time Grammy Award-winning Michael McDonald. With hits including “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” and “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” the St. Louis-born singer dazzled the audience Saturday night with his sultry baritone R&B and jazz, showcasing his passionate vocal style and underscoring the best that his soulful genre of music has to offer.
McDonald—who has performed with legendary artists including Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Patti LaBelle—took the stage accompanied by a live band complete with a keyboardist, saxophonist, a drummer, feisty back-up singers, a lead guitarist, and a bass player. McDonald himself sat center-stage with his keyboard for most of the show, but occasionally stood up to play the accordion and guitar.
Michael McDonald—who is widely known for his studio recordings alongside the group Steely Dan in the 1970s and 1980s, as well as for his role in the band The Doobie Brothers in the 1970s—began his solo career in 1982 with his first solo album, If That’s What It Takes, which featured hits including “I Gotta Try.” McDonald’s acclaim doesn’t stop there, with another widely acclaimed 2003 album Motown, which featured refined recordings of some of Motown’s greatest hits.
This Motown recording is where I first heard McDonald’s glorious voice on the track “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” for which he was nominated for a Grammy, and, as a fan of his later work, I can attest to how his live performance and stage presence lives up to his studio recordings. Michael McDonald is a true artist that must be enjoyed live: upfront and personal.
While one might not generally associate McDonald with Christmas music, McDonald delivered a powerful message Saturday night—namely, that, at the heart of Christmas music, is the soul. And, so, McDonald’s transition into the realm of Christmas music seems to fit tightly with his already vast musical repertoire. It’s no surprise to learn that McDonald already has three Christmas albums under his belt, including In the Spirit: A Christmas Album, This Christmas, and Through the Many Winters.
One of the highlights of the evening was his stripped down performance of his original “Peace.” He introduced the song by saying that, while he originally wrote the song as a Christmas song, he realized later on that, in this day and age, the lyrics—about finding inner peace, solitude, and self-gratification—translate to the everyday. This feeling echoed throughout the evening—at times, his vocals transported you to a place where you forgot it was a Christmas concert at all.
Strathmore bills McDonald as “the master of blue-eyed soul” who “has remained an iconic presence in pop.” At last night’s performance, they described him as “lending his soulful touch to Christmas classics.” They couldn’t be more right. McDonald vivaciously breathed new life into Christmas classics, retaining their holiday essence, but providing a lively interpretation that made it “an evening to share with family and friends.” Ending with his classic Motown hits, McDonald finished the evening by returning to the soulful roots that made him famous, causing the audience to leap to their feet and dance along to the timeless songs from the past four decades.
Running time: One hour and 15 minutes, with no intermission.