Threatening weather that included gusting winds, rain and thunderstorms, coupled with the fact it was Halloween night, probably had an impact on attendance for the opening performance of Michael McDonald’s three-night residency at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
But those who made it – including several who filtered in throughout the first set – saw a champion operating at the top of his game. McDonald reaffirmed that he’s among a rare group of men and women able to excel in singing both original pop material and renditions of vintage R&B and soul classics.
McDonald’s striking, instantly identifiable baritone remains rich, full and intact despite a lengthy career dating back to the early and mid-’70s, when he began doing backup and studio sessions for Steely Dan, then became an icon as lead singer for the Doobie Brothers.
He’s been a solo performer 30-plus years now, a period that’s seen him craft his share of exquisite hits and audience favorites. McDonald did several during an extensive set plus encore that extended well over an hour.
Besides frequent support from the consistently impressive Nashville Symphony, McDonald fronted a tremendous band mostly consisting of Nashville-based players. Their ranks included guitarist Bernie Chiaravalle, keyboardist/organist Pat Coil, dynamic saxophonist Mark Douthit, bassist Tommy Sims, drummer Dan Needham and exceptional vocalist Andrea Merritt, whom McDonald said helped take some attention off “the ranks of old men up here.”
He didn’t disappoint those who came to hear radio hits. McDonald delivered a soothing, stirring rendition of “You Belong To Me,” an intense “Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near),” and rousing treatments of “Minute by Minute,” “What A Fool Believes,” and “Taking It To The Streets,” which was the finale for his main set.
Throughout he got spirited, spectacular solos and accompaniment from his band. He teamed with Merritt for strong versions of duet anthems “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” both of which brought most of about three-quarters of a full house to its feet. He was even more effective on “I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” a single from his 2003 album “Motown.”
Douthit and Chiaravalle got most of the standout individual solos, but McDonald and Coil frequently engaged in interludes and exchanges that showcased McDonald’s abilities on electric keyboards as well. Needham, whom McDonald praised as “one of the best drummers I’ve ever worked with, wasn’t given any lengthy solos, but he and Sims nicely handled rhythm section duties.
McDonald also had some surprise selections on the menu. Taking advantage of the Symphony’s presence, McDonald did a couple of numbers he acknowledged the group seldom, if ,performed on his shows. One was a poignant cover of “Hey Girl,” a mild hit for Freddie Scott (covered by many others including the Righteous Brothers) in 1963 written by the famed duo Carole King and Gerry Goffin.
Another was a powerful version of “Love Letters,” which was Kitty Lester’s biggest chart entry in 1962. On both tunes McDonald’s prominent baritone was nicely contrasted by the symphony’s steady presence behind and underneath it.
The Orchestra got its own 37-minute opening set, with selections from George Gershwin and Aaron Copland providing its program. Associate Conductor & Chorus Director Kelly Corcoran adeptly led the way as the symphony opened with Copland’s “Variations on a Shaker Melody,” from “Appalachian Spring.”
That was followed by my choice for their set highlight, a medley of tunes from Gershwin’s “Girl Crazy” arranged by Robert McBride. Besides being made into a film on three occasions, “Girl Crazy’s” initial fame in 1930 came from it being the vehicle that made stars of Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers.
The Symphony expertly performed a seamless medley that merged parts of “I Got Rhythm,” “Embraceable You” and “But Not For Me” into one tight piece. They concluded their set with another Copland collection, a series of titles from “Rodeo” that included “Buckaroo Holiday,” “Corral Nocturne,” “Saturday Waltz” and the finale “Hoe Down.”
But it was McDonald and his band whose triumphant set was so electric and fast-paced it didn’t seem long enough. The sustained ovations and cheers they received at its end were enough to generate a multi-song encore that included Sims, who was a co-writer with Gordon Kennedy and Wayne Kirkpatrick of the Grammy winning tune “Change The World” (a Song of the Year winner immortalized by Eric Clapton), doing the opening and first part, while McDonald came soaring in during the harmonies and second part.
It was an ideal way to close a fine opening night. It might not have drawn a full house, but the superior performances proved seeing Michael McDonald and company alongside the Nashville Symphony is a great musical treat on any evening.
IF YOU GO
Vocalist Michael McDonald headlines a show with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. Performances are 8 Friday and Saturday at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center. Tickets are $54 to $138. Call 687-6400 or click here.