If “ain’t” isn’t a word, Michael McDonald ain’t listening.
The blue-eyed soul singer played no less than three songs with ain’t in their titles at Cain Park on Sunday. The five-time Grammy winner’s 80-minute show wrapped up the season for the outdoor Cleveland Heights venue, transforming an ordinary summer night into a hits-filled “Yacht Rock” regatta that had the boomers dancing along.
We’ll miss the park until next summer. But what a way to go.
The crowd filed into Evans Ampitheater to the sounds of Stevie Wonder (“Sir Duke,” “Superstition”) and Steely Dan (“Reelin’ In The Years,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number”) pumping over the house PA system. The tunes certainly weren’t inappropriate, given McDonald’s mid-seventies tenure in the Donald Fagan / Walter Becker-fronted ensemble.
But the 61-year old—after walking onstage with a wave—greeted fans with music from his other ex-band, The Doobie Brothers, pounding out “Here To Love You” and “It Keeps You Runnin’” from behind a Yamaha Motif XF-8 electric piano. “Sweet Freedom” (from the Billy Crystal movie Running Scared) brought the set into the ‘80s, as did the sultry “I Keep Forgetting,” from McDonald’s ’82 solo debut If That’s What It Takes.
“I hope you remember this one,” prefaced the white-haired keyboardist. Then, with a chuckle: “I hope we remember it!”
The we referred to McDonald’s ace backup band, which included California songwriter Bernie Chiaravelle (guitar, vocals), Chicagoan Tommy Sims (bass), jazz pianist Pat Coil (keys, organ), and Dan Needham (drums). Mark Douthit played saxophone and contributed additional keyboards on another Motif, and “Miss Monet” Owens added steamy background vocals.
“She makes the rest of us look like the waiting room at an assisted-living home,” McDonald joked while introducing his players.
“You Belong to Me” hailed from the Doobies’ 1977 platter Livin’ on the Faultline—but McDonald credited Carly Simon for turning his song into a bona fide hit. “Heard It Through the Grapevine” was the first of several selections from Michael’s two well-regarded Motown discs from the mid-2000s, while his elegant cover of Eddie Arnold’s “You Don’t Know Me” arrived via 2008’s Soul Speak.
The sublimely-lit band rendered the Tom Bell / Linda Creed-penned “Stop, Look, Listen” while bathed in a soft, champagne-magenta glow, and was the first of two numbers on which Owens shared lead vocals with the star. The funky “Ain’t No Love” dipped into McDonald’s 2000 effort, Blues Obsession, which—Michael noted—featured the same rhythm section of Sims / Needham. The gospel-influenced “Yah Mo Be There” invited spectators to chime in on the refrain’s “up and over” part, but nobody caught on till the second go-round.
Cheers erupted when McDonald performed the jazzy piano intro to “Minute By Minute” and audience members clapped along when Coil added his ascending organ part to the mix. McDonald covered Marvin Gaye again on “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Ain’t Nothin’ Like the Real Thing,” faithfully recreating the Motown jewels—but leaving plenty of space for Owens and Sims to layer the choruses with their vocals. Another Doobies oldie—“What a Fool Believes”—finally got folks up and moving.
“It’s okay, Cleveland,” encouraged McDonald. “It’s alright if you wanna dance!”
Michael and friends encored with a song popularized by Eric Clapton. Technically, “Change the World” wasn’t a cover; Sims wrote the feel-good hit decades ago. The bassist reclaimed the pop hymn with a stellar assist from McDonald and the gang, who then bade farewell with “Takin’ It to the Streets.”
The gig saw McDonald in top form—his husky, signature baritone as powerful as ever. It was one of those rare, no-filler shows where every number was a winner, and every performance top-notch. Douthit delighted on saxophone and Chiaravalle got a chance to sparkle with a few crackling guitar solos on his red Gibson SG and sunburst Les Paul.
The only complaint, really, was that the soul survey ended too damn soon. Still, it’s hard to quibble with an artist who favors quality over quantity and cooks like this.
“Yacht Rock” website: http://www.channel101.com/show/171