Michael McDonald keeps soft rock real at Disney Hall

Michael McDonald keeps soft rock real at Disney Hall
Michael McDonald performs Sunday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. (Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times)

His snowy white hair in vivid contrast against his dark suit jacket, Michael McDonald sat down behind his keyboard like a man dressed for dinner with his wife.

Just one song into Sunday night's concert, though, the veteran singer with the big, soulful voice took off his jacket and dropped it to the floor in a crumpled heap. Midway through the next tune, he removed his eyeglasses, sliding them into the breast pocket of his blue button-down shirt. By the middle of his third song, parts of the shirt were turning dark with sweat.


McDonald, it was clear, had come to Walt Disney Concert Hall to work.

He probably could've taken it easier. The last few years have been encouraging ones for the original practitioners of smooth 1970s soft rock, a once-maligned sound that's come back into vogue thanks to the sleek, saxophone-enriched work of acts like Blood Orange and Bon Iver. Though it arguably began as a goof -- see the popular Web series "Yacht Rock," which made affectionate fun of McDonald, Hall & Oates and Christopher Cross -- the soft-rock revival has grown serious enough that Steely Dan appeared at last month's youth-obsessed Coachella festival.

So you might've expected McDonald, booked for the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Songbook series, to let his reputation do the heavy lifting at the Disney, where the crowd was a mix of forgiving baby boomers and curious hipsters. Not this guy: Fingers jabbing the keyboard, his face scrunched into a tight grimace, the 63-year-old singer seemed determined to keep his music alive to the moment; he and his six-piece band weren't reimagining the songs, exactly, but upholding them against the dulling effect of time.

"It Keeps You Runnin'," one of the hits he played from his days with the Doobie Brothers, was as taut was it was funky, while "Minute by Minute" swung with breezy intensity. "Yah Mo B There," McDonald's 1983 duet with James Ingram, had muscular slap bass from Tommy Sims, and though McDonald had lost a few of the song's high notes to age, his exasperated vocal only added to a sense of urgency.

Even stuff from McDonald's recent collections of R&B covers -- often the last refuge of the uninspired -- felt freshly charged, as in a from-the-gut "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and a gorgeous rendition of "You Don't Know Me," the Nashville standard he dedicated to "the late, great Ray Charles."

In his commitment to keeping his music sharp, McDonald shared something with Steely Dan, which counted McDonald among its rotating players in the late '70s and sounded similarly assured in its performance at Coachella. Yet where that band's Donald Fagen and Walter Becker put across a kind of moral opposition to adapting to the times, McDonald appeared more comfortable with the idea.

Before he sang "I Keep Forgettin'," the plush funk number from his solo debut, he said the song was one whose meaning had changed over the decades since he wrote it -- a reference to an old-timer's unreliable memory, no doubt, but also perhaps to the tune's rebirth as the basis of Warren G's early '90s hip-hop classic "Regulate."

McDonald further distinguished himself from the irascible Steely Dan with his warmly self-deprecating manner: Introducing the members of his band, he credited his female backup singer with "taking the edge off the middle-aged ugliness" onstage. And he let Sims take over lead vocals for a slinky rendition of the Eric Clapton-Babyface hit "Change the World," which the bassist co-wrote. (Speaking of Babyface, the time has definitely come for a McDonald album overseen by that R&B master.)

For a listener, of course, a musician's niceness is only as valuable as the impact it makes on his or her music, and with McDonald it contributed to an appealing tension between his slick arrangements and his rough-edged singing. Indeed, the low points in Sunday's show were two amped-up blues-rock songs -- "Obsession Blues" and "No Love to Be Found" -- in which that sophisticated push-and-pull gave way to a more single-minded attack.

Not that they offered him a chance to relax. After McDonald ended his main set with a tart "What a Fool Believes," he ambled offstage, his shirt completely drenched. Then he came back for an encore without having changed.

Was he proud of the visible effort he'd put in? He deserved to be.

Twitter: @mikaelwood