Michael McDonald – Wide Open (2017)

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The last song on Michael McDonald’s new album Wide Open, “Free a Man,” is one of many that serve to remind us that his songwriting chops are as formidable as his vocal talents. Perhaps this has been forgotten as his last few LPs have contained mostly covers.

Indeed, we need to go all the way back to 1997’s Blue Obsession for an album of mostly home grown songs. While 2013’s Unfinished Business EP was a great tease, a full album with blues great Robben Ford never materialized. Michael McDonald more than makes up for the gap in new original material with Wide Open.

Say what you want about the gays
The one thing that they are not, is afraid
You thought you had ’em down
You thought you had ’em beat
Then there’s thirty thousand righteous dudes
Marching down the street
We may not all agree on sex
But we can all agree on love
Free A Man
And love will follow

Yes, this is the same guy who wrote one of the best anthems of the ’70s, “Takin’ It to the Streets.” For this solo album, McDonald ramps up the sound and rock as “Free a Man” features funky guitar contributions from Michael Landau and a smoking tenor solo from Tom Scott.

Drummer and co-producer Shannon Forrest assists McDonald throughout Wide Open, providing the building blocks for this great album, but the foundation is clearly McDonald’s still-distinctive and superb voice and songwriting. The song “Hail Mary” only drops a hint of what is to come. It’s deeply relationship-focused and powerful, with McDonald delivering a subtle lead vocal supported by guest vocalist Amy Holland-McDonald.

“Just Strong Enough” is the kind of song I wish the Doobie Brothers still did. It’s eight minutes of snarling blues and funk tied around rhythm contributions from former Doobie bassist Willie Weeks’ and Shannon Forrest, then thrust forward by the electric guitars of Warren Haynes and Robben Ford. Michael McDonald’s skill as a blues singer is often over looked. Here he uses the tool to fabulous effect. His voice, the guitars and the New Orleans-style horns make this one of McDonald’s best deep cuts.

“Half Truth” provides a distinctive vibe built around McDonald’s harmonica, and long-term side man Bernie Chiaravalle’s expressive 12 string electric guitar. The southern vibe is quickly dispelled by Michael Landau’s electric slide guitar and McDonald’s powerful and direct story telling. “Ain’t No Good” features David Paich on Hammond B-3 and synthesizers. McDonald shifts the mood effectively, while not shifting the subject matter. The song paints a clear picture of the struggles of relationships and loneliness, building off the driving mid-tempo backbeat.

“Blessing in Disguise” brings in Toto’s Steve Porcaro and jazz legend Branford Marsalis on soprano saxophone. Both are used to help support the feeling on hopefulness hinted in the lyrics. Never preachy and undeniably inspirational, “Blessing in Disguise” touches on the current state of the individual at a micro and macro level. Marsalis’ bebop solo lifts this mid-tempo track to an even higher level.

“Dark Side” is one of three tracks where Michael McDonald picks up his guitar, in addition to his piano and synthesizer duties. His rhythms assist in tying together a lush and simmering R&B tale which ranks up there with his best relationship songs. “If You Wanted To Hurt Me” picks up the pace considerably, with Marcus Miller sitting in the bass chair. Michael McDonald and David Paich duel on Clavinet and Hammond B-3, respectively, and guest vocalist Drea Renee adds yet more fire to this tale of a relationship on the edge of a precipice. Indeed, the David Frank horn arrangement nearly pushes it over the edge. “If You Wanted To Hurt Me” sounds like a track that McDonald forgot to include eon his stellar second solo release, No Lookin’ Back.

“Too Short” is the only song on Wide Open where Michael McDonald doesn’t lend his instrumental help; however, as coproducer with Forrest the song reflects just the right touches. The spry shuffle built by Forrest and bassist Tommy Simms continues the theme of gratitude and optimism touched on elsewhere in the album. Mark Douthi’s sax and David Paich’s Hammond B-3 add to the uplifting outlook, which is punctuated by McDonald’s overdubbed backing vocals.

Wide Open may well be Michael McDonald’s most musically dense and compelling studio project. That’s saying something considering all the musical highlights in his fantastic career.

Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier is a bass-playing lawyer living in Atlanta. His first Steely Dan exposure was with an eight-track cassette of 'Pretzel Logic.' He can be reached at slangofages@icloud.com; follow him on Twitter: @slangofages. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Preston Frazier
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