Soft-rock hero Michael McDonald suddenly has indie cred

McDonald mo b here Saturday night.
Photo: Amy Harris / AP
Annie Zaleski

When Thundercat sought out collaborators for his latest album, Drunk, he turned to such modern heavy hitters as Kendrick Lamar, Wiz Khalifa and Pharrell. On the song “Show You the Way,” however, the cosmic producer landed a couple of seasoned icons: yacht-rock patron saints Kenny Loggins and Michael McDonald. The resulting collaboration is appropriately smooth—after all, the duo co-wrote the indelible Grammy winner “What a Fool Believes”—and sounds beamed in from a vintage episode of Casey Kasem’s American Top 40. But McDonald’s golden-voiced, soulful warbling fits the vibe of the song, and his reverb-slathered solo parts add gravitas.

Yet “Show You the Way” isn’t a case of McDonald being dragged into the studio as a token veteran artist. As Thundercat told Red Bull Music Academy, the creative collaboration was profoundly rewarding. “[McDonald] would go through so many ideas and have so much to offer. The minute you would say, ‘Do that again,’ he’d be like, ‘Do what?’ It was magical, just to see it. Then he was like, ‘Let me take it home for a little while.’ He would send me a voice memo, and I would break down crying, man.”

McDonald, who hits Star of the Desert Arena in Primm on August 5, has that effect on musicians. Just ask indie band Grizzly Bear, which tapped him for guest vocals on 2009 song “While You Wait for the Others,” or R&B singer Solange, who enlisted him to duet on “What a Fool Believes” with her at a Florida festival earlier this year. The snow-haired crooner has been gently lampooned over the years—notably in an SCTV sketch involving singing backup for Christopher Cross—but, in creative circles, the St. Louis native is widely respected these days.

It helps that McDonald’s solo work and contributions to the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan are unironically hip again. That’s thanks in part to the electronic-based vaporwave movement, whose beachy approach sounds indebted to soft rock, not to mention the proliferation of yacht-rock tribute bands (see: The Guilty Pleasures) and happy hours, like LA’s Soft Rock Sunday. In fact, this breezy music, long maligned for its smoothness, has been embraced for its warm production and pristine harmonies. That the vinyl revival has given these records new life is the umbrella in the tropical drink.

For his part, McDonald seems game to poke fun at himself and his role in this movement. On an episode of 30 Rock, he proudly belted out the line, “This country has 600 million kidneys/And we really only need half” during a fake charity single, and he once sang on a late-night show with Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake, both dressed like him. But McDonald has also kept an open mind to new sounds: In a recent Stereogum interview, he praised Mac DeMarco’s “original musicality” and Father John Misty’s lyrics. He also revealed that he recently recorded an “EDM track” with Nile Rodgers and a DJ from Ireland.

McDonald’s forthcoming new album, Wide Open, is more traditional. It’s far from staid, however: The record, due out September 15, is a well-crafted collection of funk-flecked smooth jazz (“Find It In Your Heart,” “Blessing in Disguise”), harmonica-laced blues-rock (“Half Truth”) and, yes, some prime ’80s R&B rave-ups (“Hurt Me”). Wide Open plays like an unassuming encapsulation of what McDonald has always done well: keep his head down, sing his heart out and let his voice do the heavy lifting.

Michael Mcdonald August 5, 8 p.m., $30-$60. Primm’s Star of the Desert Arena, 702-382-4388.

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