Michael McDonald plays Winstar with Boz Scaggs on Friday, June 16
In the course of his 40-plus years in music, Michael McDonald has collaborated with some of the industry’s biggest names. From stints in the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan to writing songs for Van Halen and singing with Ray Charles and Patti Labelle, the man has achieved some remarkable things.
A bona fide pop star in the '70s and '80s, McDonald’s stock took a bit of a hit through the late '90s and into the early 2000s. Despite a constant string of releases and glowing accolades for his Motown reinterpretations, McDonald struggled to gain footing with new audiences.
All that has changed over the past several years, however.
Lately, McDonald has lent his silky vocals and keyboard flourishes to a veritable “who’s who” of popular indie acts. From Grizzly Bear to Solange to North Texas’ own Snarky Puppy, McDonald has been working the crowds of Coachella and introducing himself to new generations of listeners.
Most recently, he appeared to sing alongside old buddy Kenny Loggins and ultra-hip jazz interpreter Steve Bruner — better known as Thundercat — on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.
“I felt a real kinship with Steve Bruner. He’s one of those guys that is so prolific that he has a hard time keeping up with himself. I’m the opposite and move at a glacial place,” McDonald told the Observer in a phone conversation from San Antonio, where he played last night. “We crossed paths in a miraculous way and were able to help each other out. Music always has its’ own camaraderie. I’ve always felt like the Forrest Gump of the music business. I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great people.”
While he doesn't claim to be a connoisseur of new music, McDonald has recently been making an effort to better educate himself on new sounds and movements. “I went to Coachella with my daughter which was very uncharacteristic of me. She kept me out late to the bitter end which was really a lot of fun. We saw Radiohead and Father John Misty and a lot of other great acts that I’m just now getting familiar with," he said. "On the way home to Santa Barbara we listened to the full albums from a lot of these artists, which really proved to be a great exercise for me."
We asked McDonald if he heard the influence of his vast catalog and soulful signature sound among the cadre of new artists performing today.
“Whether artists know it or not, I think we’re all a little influenced by what came before," he said. “I didn’t own a record player when I was younger. I just played every day after school and then started gigging around town. I heard bands and songs through friends of mine, but a lot of what I picked up on was learned by traveling through college towns. We would typically crash on someone’s floor after our show and inevitably would stay up way too late listening to music.”
The fact that McDonald didn't have an impressive record collection when he was coming up separates him from many other musicians. He said this may have benefited him in some ways. “The lack of my own records, I think, also led me to stay truer to my original likes, which were soul and R&B," he said. "Had I been a more avid collector or listener I may have been swayed off into other areas.”
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McDonald’s instincts have served him well. All these years later, he’s still touring regularly and working to perfect his sound.
This summer he's criss-crossing North America with an old buddy, Boz Scaggs, and releasing some new music, as well. Wide Open, due Sept. 15, is his first release of original music in some time. It's a songwriting accomplishment that he's been working toward for the past decade, but he's still a bit nervous about it.
“In the old days, it always took about a year for me to really get to know the melodies. I always thought, ‘Wow, I wish I could record this tomorrow instead of having done it a year ago,'" McDonald said. “I still kinda feel that way. The songs always grow and rearrange the more that you play them.”
Michael McDonald with Boz Scaggs, 7 p.m. Friday, June 16, WinStar World Casino and Resort, 777 Casino Ave., Thackerville, Oklahoma, $45-$125, ticketmaster.com.