As Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell sang, ain't nothin' like the real thing, baby. Appellate Judge Dave Ryan says that Michael McDonald is definitely the real thing, even 30 years down the road.
Our reviews of Michael McDonald: A Tribute to Motown / Live (Blu-ray) (published December 7th, 2011), Michael McDonald: Model. Citizen. (published November 4th, 2010), and Michael McDonald: This Christmas (Blu-ray) (published October 6th, 2010) are also available.
No, that's not George Lucas playing piano.
If you sat next to Michael McDonald on a bus, odds are you wouldn't even notice him, let alone pay any attention to him. Just another 50ish silver-haired guy; seems nice; a little soft-spoken. You'd never know that the St. Louis native sitting there next to you was one of the all-time great white male vocalists in rock music history. But sit him down at a keyboard and stick a mic in front of him, and you'd know. Oh lordy, would you know…
Facts of the Case
Soundstage, a PBS show featuring contemporary music acts performing live, originally ran from 1974 to 1985. After a long hiatus, PBS station WTTW in Chicago revived the show in 2003. In July of 2003, Michael McDonald took the stage to perform a slate of his solo hits, as well as songs from his days with the Doobie Brothers and selections from his then-current album Motown. He was joined by original Doobies Tom Johnson and Patrick Simmons, plus legendary Motown duo Ashford & Simpson. In the hour-long program, McDonald ran through the following classics:
• It Keeps You Runnin'
Additionally, a bonus track—"You Belong To Me"—is included with this disc; it was not shown on the original broadcast.
Let's be frank here: Not only can't white men jump, most of them can't sing well, either. And by "well" I mean traditionally well—having a clear, clean, and strong voice plus a wide vocal range. Most "good" white boy singers—take, for instance, James Taylor—have one but not the other. Some have neither, but have a lot of heart and soul in their voice. (Case in point: Bruce Springsteen.) But every so often, someone comes around who has The Pipes. There have been precious few such men in the history of rock music. Well, precious few white guys. I can rattle off a long list of black men with fantastic voices—Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Ben E. King, Luther Vandross, et cetera ad infinitum. Perhaps it's all in the chitlins.
Three men immediately spring to mind when I think of White Guys With The Pipes. First, the late, great Roy Orbison certainly deserves a place on that list. Roy's probably the only rock singer ever whose voice could legitimately be called "beautiful." Classically trained Marvin Lee Aday (better know as Meat Loaf) probably is on there as well—it's not his fault that he couldn't get good material to sing after Jim Steinman stopped writing for him, after all.
But the guy who may be the best of all of them is Michael McDonald, whose buttery-smooth baritone is one of the most immediately recognizable voices in all of popular music. McDonald's soaring voice has graced dozens of major hits since he first gained attention as a prominent backing vocalist on Steely Dan's album Katy Lied. After contributing his talents to several of Becker and Fagen's recordings on subsequent albums, he followed the lead of former Dan guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and defected to the Doobie Brothers. (McDonald had filled in for founding Doobie vocalist Tom Johnson on a 1976 tour after Johnson fell ill; by 1977 he had replaced Johnson in the band.)
Prior to McDonald's arrival, the Doobie Brothers had been a good-time light blues boogie band—sort of a more pop-oriented Allman Brothers Band. They had achieved a great deal of success with rootsy R&B tunes like "China Grove," "Listen To the Music," and "Black Water." But they felt that their sound was growing stale, and turned some of the creative direction of the band over to Baxter and McDonald. The change in sound was immediate and dramatic. Overnight, the Doobie Brothers became a slick, professional blue-eyed soul outfit that shared many qualities (detailed and meticulous production; a very focused sound; studio perfectionism) with Steely Dan—it could be said that the McDonald-era Doobies were to soul what Steely Dan was to jazz-pop.
The new sound was enormously popular—the Doobie Brothers, along with their California kinfolk the Eagles, dominated the airwaves in the late '70s. McDonald penned some of their biggest hits in that time—"It Keeps You Runnin'," "Takin' It To The Streets," "Minute by Minute," and "What a Fool Believes" to name a few (the latter co-written with Kenny Loggins, incidentally).
The Doobies broke up in 1982, and McDonald embarked on a solo career. He had an early hit with "I Keep Forgetting (Everytime You're Near)," and also scored a top ten single with "Sweet Freedom" (from the movie Running Scared). He also had successful duets with James Ingram ("Yah Mo Be There") and Patti LaBelle ("On My Own") in the '80s. (He still did the occasional backup vocal job, too—that's him backing up Christopher Cross on Cross's hit single "Run Like the Wind.") But McDonald basically disappeared after 1986, due mainly to the fact that his blue-eyed soul sound—which he refused to change—was out of favor by that point. (Just ask Hall and Oates.) Recently, though, McDonald has had a bit of a resurgence in his career, thanks to the success of his albums Motown and Motown Two, which feature McDonald covering classic Motown hits of the '60s and '70s. (He and/or his music have also shown up in a number of commercials recently.) The performance recorded for Soundstage was made just prior to the release of the first Motown album.
McDonald is absolutely not one of those aging rock stars working the county fair circuit, trying to pretend he's still got talent. His voice—The Pipes—is just as strong, sweet, and emotive as it was in 1976. No backing tracks needed here—and I'm pretty sure he didn't have acid reflux either. Just listen to him covering "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," the Barrett Strong/Norman Whitfield song made famous by the late Marvin Gaye. First of all, only a handful of humans can cover a Marvin Gaye song without sounding like an absolute idiot. Fewer still can actually hit the high notes like Marvin could. But McDonald not only hits the notes, he even manages to imbue the song with the same agonizing emotional pain that Gaye brought to it back in his heyday. This is a cover that Brother Marvin would smile upon from up in heaven. And that's just one example. He also harmonizes beautifully with Valerie Simpson and Nick Ashford on their songs "Ain't Nothin' Like the Real Thing" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough" (both hits for Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell).
Doobie Brothers fans will get more than they expected from this set—founding Brothers Patrick Simmons and Tom Johnson (ironically, the guy McDonald replaced) are on hand for a couple of Doobie hits (pun intended). Simmons takes the lead vocal on "Black Water"; Johnson, the original lead singer of the band, rips through "Take Me In Your Arms (Rock Me)," a Motown song that the Doobies had covered on 1975's Stampede album.
Soundstage is shot in 1080i high definition, so one would expect the DVD transfer to be good. It is—the picture (full frame) is extremely crisp and clear, with great color and contrast. Some minor edge enhancement mars what would otherwise be a flawless picture. Sound is provided in 5.1 Surround and 2.0 Stereo mixes; the surround track is well done. It's not as immersive as I'd like it to be, and the board mix is a bit questionable (the band sounds a bit too distant and muted).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The extras are a bit sparse on the disc. You get a brief bio of McDonald, a brief text Q&A with him, some text-based "biographies" of the band (which are useless), discographies, a photo gallery, and some "behind the scenes" info on the making of the show (again, text with photos). Feh!
The only valuable extra is a bonus song not seen on the original show—"You Belong to Me," a song McDonald wrote with Carly Simon (of the Simon and Schuster Simons), who charted with it in 1978. However, it's very short—and it's only available from the "song selection" menu. It does not play after the main feature, and it isn't listed among the special features. To add insult to injury, after I played the extra song I wasn't even returned to a menu. The DVD player just sort of…hung. It wasn't a problem—a quick press of the menu button brought me back to the top—but it's peculiar, to say the least.
If you are a Michael McDonald fan, this is a must-have for your collection. There simply aren't a lot of video choices for McDonald fans—or Doobie Brothers fans, for that matter. If you have even a passing enjoyment of the Motown sound, or of McDonald's Doobie Brothers songs, do yourself a favor and check this disc out. You don't often get a chance to see a guy still performing at his peak nearly 30 years after his heyday. Especially a white guy.
This court is takin' it to the streets.
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• Bonus Song: "You Belong to Me"
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