Michael McDonald – This Christmas (2010): On Second Thought

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It’s easy to dismiss This Christmas: Live in Chicago, just by the title alone. Who needs another baby-boomer rock guy slouching through some Yuletide favorites, right? Except that Michael McDonald craftily sneaks in several of his former Doobie Brothers tunes during the course of this show. Better still, he makes some important changes along the way.

I’d often wondered, actually, what it would have been like if McDonald had been able to tear through those blue-eyed soul sides with a smart, straight-ahead R&B band — replacing the treacly synth-soaked production values of those old records with juking backup singers. This Christmas, as strange as that may sound, provides the answer. This 18-song Eagle Rock release begins and ends with songs from his career with the Doobies and as a solo artist and, years later, they provide the film’s lasting impressions.

McDonald does the most dramatic remodeling to the Doobie Brothers’ former 1979 chart-topper “What A Fool Believes.” He drops the song’s dated keyboard signature, instead slow roasting it into a soul-lifting vamp. Even as he retains that mercurial, smoky baritone, McDonald occasionally struggles to get to the highest part of the range he had in the late 1970s. But that only gives this scuffed-up re-do a new emotional heft. There are times when McDonald couldn’t sound more broken by the realization that this love hasn’t turned out as he planned.

Similarly, Michael McDonald moves in and around the familiar tick-tock chorus of the 1979 hit “Minute by Minute,” with a raw authority, bellowing and then crying with unreserved abandon. The tune begins with a wandering turn at the acoustic piano (rather than on the original Rhodes), before McDonald leaves aside these late-night musings to dive headlong into its memorable opening crescendo. Guitarist Bernie Chiaravalle, who has toured with the Doobies, then toughens up the arrangement with a series of short, sharp licks.

“It Keeps You Runnin’,” the 1976 Top 20 hit that opens This Christmas: Live in Chicago, is completely reimagined as a rollicking back-pew blues, with another crackling guitar riff from Chiaravalle, gurgly organ fills and stomping horns. McDonald is almost subsumed at times by the rising chorus of grease-popping soul behind him. Vince Denham is a brash, honking delight on the saxophone — sending the assembled Chicagoland crowd into a frenzy.

Not that the Christmas songs don’t resonate. Michael McDonald’s voice holds too much dusky nuance for them not to. He includes a couple of originals, notably the Louisiana-themed hoot “Christmas on the Bayou”; further indulges his recent penchant for Motown do-overs with Stevie Wonder’s “That’s What Christmas Means to Me”; and dutifully covers long-cooled chestnuts like “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” “White Christmas/Winter Wonderland” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” among others. (This Christmas: Live in Chicago also includes a lovely bonus version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”) But, in one form or another, we’ve heard all of that before. I kept coming back to his stuff with the Doobies.

McDonald can come off as a guilty pleasure, principally because his powerfully emotive voice was so often caught in a gauzy web of too-slick production. (There’s also the fact that he so radically altered the elemental biker-boogie sound of the Doobies.) On This Christmas, he reclaims the work by turning those songs into a growling R&B testimony. McDonald also delves into a solo career that somehow never recaptured the consistent hitmaking magic of his time with the Doobie Brothers.

“I Keep Forgettin’,” his No. 4 hit from 1982, is given a more conventional reading — but Michael McDonald pulls so much out of the lyric that at times he falls behind the beat. As the period-piece synthesizers are again pushed back in the mix, you’ll find McDonald riffing through other parts of the verse with the manner and fervor of a horn player. It’s like he’s singing the song for the very first time. Denham’s solo here, on the other hand, is a bit too conventional, but “I Keep Forgettin’” — stripped back to its emotional core — easily survives this small misstep.

“Sweet Freedom,” a lightweight soundtrack contribution from McDonald for the 1986 film Running Scared, was never going to be confused with the cool urban soul he brought to the best of his work with the Doobies. Yet on This Christmas: Live in Chicago, McDonald kindles a passion as warm as it is surprising. That starts by adding a Stax/Volt-inspired horn arrangement to go with McDonald’s bordello-shaking piano. Pat Coil takes a ruminative turn on the Hammond B-3 that recalls the Band’s Garth Hudson, while the assembled group of fellow singers fronted by Drea Rhenee provides a saucy new counterpoint. Then, something special happens: Michael McDonald opens up the ending of the song, hurtling it into a more free-form place. Chiaravalle takes over for a plucky turn on the guitar, drummer Yvette Preyer begins smashing with fresh abandon, and a discarded MOR curio finds new life.

“Takin’ It To The Streets,” a No. 13 hit in 1976 and the closing tune on This Christmas: Live in Chicago, was a moment when the Michael McDonald-era Doobies sounded the most like their previous selves — and, to my ear, the least hampered by the production values of the day. Even it sounds born again. Reformulated as a rafter-raising gospel number, “Streets” finds Rhenee moving up front for a pleasingly bawdy turn at the microphone. The track, already a great sing-along number, is somehow made even more expansive.

By the end of This Christmas: Live in Chicago, as Rhenee leads a forceful call-and-response with the band, there is a joyful noise that surpasses any of the Christmas-related offerings that came before.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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