Rock icon Michael McDonald back in Aspen | AspenTimes.com

Rock icon Michael McDonald back in Aspen

Michael McDonald is returning return to Aspen.
Aspen Times file

IF YOU GO …

Who: Michael McDonald

Where: Belly Up Aspen

When: Tuesday, April 9, 9 p.m.

How much: $65 to $150

Tickets: Belly Up box office; bellyupaspen.com

Michael McDonald is having a millennial moment.

The 67-year old former Doobie Brother and Steely Dan member with the silky smooth voice may be a white-haired elder statesman of soft rock, but — quite suddenly and much to his surprise — McDonald also is being hailed as a hero by a new generation of musicians and fans.

His guest appearance with jazz-funk bassist Thundercat at Coachella in 2017 just about exploded the Internet and became one of the biggest moments in pop music this year. McDonald plays their new song “Show You the Way” — co-written and recorded with McDonald, Thundercat and Kenny Loggins — along with the Doobie Brothers classic “What a Fool Believes.” He also showed up to much fanfare to do “What a Fool Believes” with Solange at Florida’s Okeechobee festival in in Florida. Mac DeMarco and Frank Ocean openly paid tribute to McDonald on their acclaimed new albums.

The rock icon has never gone away, but he hasn’t always been cool — his dramatically earnest and tender voice has been spoofed everywhere from “South Park” to “Saturday Night Live,” mocked in “The 40-Year-Old Virgin” and the web series “Yacht Rock.” But all of a sudden, a new generation of 20- and 30-something listeners seems to have realized that Michael McDonald is awesome.

“No one is more surprised than me at the chain of events,” McDonald, who headlines Belly Up Aspen on Tuesday, said before headlining Jazz Aspen’s June Experience in 2017. “It’s been a real shot in the arm for me from a musical standpoint, working with Thundercat, Steve Bruner and getting to meet Mac.”

In a music career spanning nearly 50 years since his early days gigging around St. Louis, McDonald has seen his share of peaks and valleys. This millennial boom came along with the release of a new album called “Wide Open,” his first solo album of originals in 17 years.

For the first time in a while, McDonald said, he feels in tune with pop music.

“As the decades go by, there are times when you feel like everybody is speaking in a language you don’t understand,” McDonald said. “But then there’s always that moment where someone is standing in front of you and doing something you totally relate to and you feel like it has all the nuance and tradition of the music you have grown up with and loved since you can remember.”

A lifetime in music, of course, with moments on top of the world and others near the bottom, has also taught him to enjoy a zeitgeist-y run like this one.

“We’re happy it’s happening for as long as it’s going to happen,” he said. “The music business is one of those things that comes in waves. There’s always that ominous silence for a while that you have to adjust to again, and wherever the muse takes you, it’s anybody’s guess.”

For his Aspen shows, McDonald comes armed with all of his solo hits, his Doobie Brothers songs and his popular Motown covers along with the “Wide Open” material. “Wide Open” is an eclectic mix of R&B, country and gospel.

Among the new songs is the standout “Free a Man.” It’s a funky political anthem and a call for equal rights that makes room for some grooving saxophone solos. It was written by Richard Stekol (“One of the best songwriters in America, for my money”). McDonald was working on it long before Donald Trump entered the presidential race and the fight for gay and women’s rights in America intensified. With a chorus of “Free a man and love will follow,” the song was an anthem waiting for a movement.

“It seems to be a conversation we’re having as a nation at this moment, and yet it’s also a conversation we’ve always been having,” McDonald said. “They seem to be the stumbling blocks to actually becoming the country that we say we are — actually living up to the Constitution and the inclusion we say we’re about.”

Making the new record was less about some great artistic epiphany and more about the simple fact that McDonald built a studio in Nashville. Whenever he has an idea, or wants to cut a demo, he heads in there. The demos have steadily piled up until the young producer Shannon Forrest persuaded McDonald to release them (the record also includes guest spots form Warren Haynes, Robben Ford, Marcus Miller and Branford Marsalis).

“A lot of these songs were just from me sneaking into the studio randomly over the years,” McDonald explained. “I was writing them and we’d think of artists to send them to – kind of living the life of Nashville songwriters. Thinking someone like Bonnie Raitt would cut our songs, you know?”

Forrest fell in love with the songs as McDonald played them and told him, “I think you’ve got a record here.”

All this is to say that Michael McDonald is no oldies act.

“I’m 65 years old, but I’m enjoying life more than I ever have,” he said. “If you’re not enjoying yourself at this point, you’re missing the point.”atravers@aspentimes.com


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