When Michael McDonald appeared on-stage with Thundercat at the Brainfeeder extravaganza at the Hollywood Bowl last September, few would have expected that would be the jumpstart to a career renaissance. After all, for many of a certain age, McDonald is the guy whose music is played on a loop in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. That warm late-summer night was merely the start.
This year has seen many things in America continue to hit rock bottom, but McDonald’s renaissance has been a pleasant reminder that good things can happen. Beginning with a well-received appearance with the aforementioned bassist at Coachella compounded with a festival-stealing slot at Okeechobee set that featured Solange, Allen Stone, Lawrence and members of Snarky Puppy and Vulfpeck, the 65-year-old has seen his fortunes soar.
McDonald contributed a song to Thundercat’s terrific Drunk album. If the pairing seems a bit odd, well, it is. The artist also known as Stephen Bruner has spoken highly of both he and Kenny Loggins’ laurels, which caught the ear of Loggins. He asked McDonald if he’d be interested in writing a song with the bassist. They got together at a studio in Santa Barbara and that’s how “Show You the Way” was birthed. Performing on the Tonight Show didn’t hurt either.
“A lot of unexpected things have happened this year and I’m grateful,” the singer says as he rides shotgun on a ride through Santa Barbara with his wife. “At my age, I’m grateful to be working, nevertheless be above ground.”
Thus, the timing for the crooner to strike with a new album couldn’t be better. Though he released a few Motown-inspired records, Wide Open will be his first batch of new material in nearly a decade. With a star-studded lineup that includes musicians Warren Haynes, Robben Ford, Marcus Miller and Branford Marsalis, McDonald is on the cusp of resonating with a much a younger audience for the first time in years. Recent years have seen him perform with larger bands. Working with a trio on this record sharpened his arrangements and allowed more room for improvisation.
Without the pressures to deliver a big radio single, McDonald took his time crafting Wide Open. Calling the Motown albums “a special project,” he developed it while he was touring in Europe. During this time, he still wrote original songs and recorded sounds on his iPhone so he’d have it for future reference. He also had a partnership with Nashville-based musician/producer Shannon Forrest where he could record material sans a timetable.
“It’s a word of mouth project that I hope to get out to the public as much as I can,” he says. “But I’m going to have to use alternative marketing and to play the songs live as much as I can. It allows me wider parameters so my songs don’t have to be time sensitive so much and they can be a little quirky. I don’t have the same concerns that I had 25 years ago.”
Sure, it would be easy for him to rest on the laurels of his past, which include hits with the Doobie Brothers, Steely Dan and his solo career. Working with Thundercat and seeing the warm reception he’s received by the non-adult contemporary set has been an inspiration and revelation. Few could work with a wide-ranging cast of characters like McDonald has. Yet, as he gears up to hit the road, his career prospects are bright, and his profile is as large as its been in years.
“It’s this uncanny kind of good fortune that will happen sometimes,” he says. “Looking back on my career, almost everything that we do that opened for me as a musician is the last thing that I expected to happen and kind of came out of the blue. When I was doing the Doobie Brothers or Steely Dan, it all just happened. I was in the right place at the right time and when that happens, you have to seize the moment and see it the for the potential what it is.”
Michael McDonald performs with Boz Scaggs at the Pacific Amphitheater Sunday, Aug. 6 For tickets and full info, click here.