If you’ve been around long enough to remember the heyday of FM radio, then you have heard your share of the unforgettable voice of Michael McDonald. With the early Steely Dan, the middle (aka great) period Doobie Brothers, and on songs like “What a Fool Believes” and “Takin’ It to the Streets,” McDonald was the gold standard when it came to creating enduring radio hits. His gospel influences, the easy way he moves through his huge vocal range, and his instinct for where good music is going at any given time have allowed McDonald to stay steps ahead both artistically and commercially throughout the 2000s, as well. His Christmas album, his recent soul album, and, most of all, his two incredibly popular Motown albums have put McDonald, who had his first hits in the 1970s, back in the charts alongside the music industry’s most popular recording artists. Meticulous production, good taste, and good material, along with some cool friends like Stevie Wonder, are all part of the equation that keeps McDonald sounding fresh even when working with some of the world’s most familiar songs.
McDonald, along with contemporaries like Don Henley and Glenn Frey, came of age in the Hollywood music industry’s “Hit Men” era, a time and place that for the most part makes the Madison Avenue hijinks of Mad Men look like Sesame Street. Yet McDonald emerged from the eye of this particular cultural hurricane unscathed, a relaxed and confident success story who has been married to the same woman — singer Amy Holland — since 1983. He just finished recording an album for his son, Dylan, and he’s got another project going with Robben Ford, but he’s taking time out from a busy studio schedule to play a concert here on Saturday, March 3, at the Lobero because he feels strongly about the cause.
“I’ve known Mimi [Doohan, the physician who founded Doctors Without Walls] for a few years now, and I really feel strongly about this idea of street medicine,” said McDonald. “To me, this is such a worthy effort, because you have doctors like Mimi who don’t need to do this, but they understand that it is part of being a true health-care professional to give care to the whole community, and that the care that they give on the streets has a positive impact on the entire society.”
McDonald will perform solo with a guitar player to back him on some songs. He also plans to have some guests onstage, including his wife and a few of his friends from Santa Barbara. McDonald wouldn’t say whom, but I’ll give you a hint — his three best musical buddies in town are Kenny Loggins (they wrote some huge hits together), Jeff Bridges (they started a recording studio and label together), and David Crosby. “Don’t forget about Crosby!” McDonald chided me when I ran through the first two names on this list of his longtime S.B. connections.
When I asked about his recent adventures in the Billboard charts, McDonald replied playfully. “It was fun playing the Motown records for the studio executives when they were finished,” he said. “No one said, ‘I don’t hear a single.’” As for how he navigated the deep waters of covering such well-known material, McDonald said his mantra was keep it simple. “People want to hear those songs the way they were written,” he explained. “We never threw out the arrangements; we tried to keep them.”
As for how he feels about all the time he spends in the studio, McDonald said, “Well, one of the most recent sessions I had was at a home studio in the South of France, and I spent as much time as I could in the producer’s pool. And now, I’m looking forward to being in Santa Barbara.”
Michael McDonald will play a benefit for Doctors Without Walls-Santa Barbara Street Medicine. The concert is sponsored by American Medical Response and takes place at the Lobero Theatre (33 E. Canon Perdido St.) on Saturday, March 3, at 7:30 p.m. Call (805) 963-0761 or visit lobero.com.