Michael McDonald brings Christmas tour to Strathmore


After three Christmas albums, Michael McDonald says working with classic carols is “a great opportunity for me to do some old songs with a different twist.” (Courtesy of Strathmmore)
November 27, 2013

Michael McDonald has one of the most recognizable voices in music — a husky baritone you might remember from “What a Fool Believes” and other 1970s hits by his bands the Doobie Brothers and Steely Dan, as well as from such solo material as “I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)” and “Ya Mo B There.”

The blue-eyed soulman has released only one collection of new songs since 2000, but the past decade has proven busy and fruitful. McDonald earned multiple Grammy Award nominations for “Motown,” a compilation stuffed with favorite Motown tracks, and followed that with “Motown Two” and a live album of songs from those two discs. He has toured with fellow ’70s hitmakers Boz Scaggs and Donald Fagan as well as with a reunited Steely Dan. And the 61-year-old has been introduced to a new generation of hipster fans, thanks to the satirical Web series “Yacht Rock,” which explored the soft ’70s scene that spawned Steely Dan, Kenny Loggins and Toto.

Less heralded, perhaps, are McDonald’s three holiday collections, which mix traditional chestnuts and new songs in the same smooth, funky style of his fan favorites. We spoke to McDonald recently about those songs, which are the focus of his “This Christmas” tour that comes to Strathmore on Saturday.

What’s the first Christmas song you remember singing, and did you have a favorite growing up?

I went to Catholic grade school, so we sang a lot of religious songs: “O Holy Night,” “Silent Night.”. . . I always loved “O Holy Night.” It was such a pretty melody.

One of my all-time favorite Christmas songs, I have to admit, was the Chipmunks’ “Christmas Song.” I remember playing that song over and over. [Laughs.] I remember listening to it for the 15th time — it was probably the 25th time — and right about the time where Dave starts yelling “ALVIN!” my poor mother started yelling, “Mike, turn that damn thing off!”

You’ve done a couple of Christmas records, and you’ve done a pair of Motown records. They’re similar in that they’re full of songs that so many people already know all the words to. Are there advantages or drawbacks to performing such songs?

I think there’s room in the Christmas genre for interpretation and improvisation. We’ve heard those songs so many times that people, as a rule, kind of welcome a new version of an old classic. I think it’s up to the artist to do their best to retain the character of the song as originally written, in some form. These [Christmas] albums were, for me, a great opportunity to do some old songs with a different twist.. . . That’s part of the fun of those kinds of projects, doing songs that people have done before. You tread kind of lightly, but at the same time, it’s an adventure in seeing what you can do with them that makes sense and, in the end, will be a sincere effort in approaching them in a different way.

On the Christmas records, there’s some new material, like “Every Time Christmas Comes Around.” There haven’t been many new songs that have found their way into the Christmas version of the American Songbook. Why do you think that is?

I honestly don’t know. That was my goal when we first did these Christmas albums. . . . We wanted to do a gospel Christmas album that would contain some new material. They let us do it. Most labels would try to talk you out of that. They discourage you from doing new stuff, because they want you to do the old standards that everybody knows. We were lucky.

I love writing Christmas music. It’s some of the easiest songs to write. . . . You draw from your own memories — it’s kind of a wellspring of inspiration, in a way. With other songs, you know, you spend six months just trying to figure out what to write about.

Do you approach touring on Christmas records differently than the usual tour, where you’re doing Doobie Brothers or your solo material?

They’re completely different. We enjoy the Christmas tour — it’s a different time of year, and it’s a chance to play some completely different music, and some of it’s pretty funky. . . . [But] we still do a bit of the show with regular stuff, because people seem to want to hear that, too. They don’t want to just hear Christmas music. We tried that the first couple years, and people were disappointed that we didn’t do “Taking It to the Streets” or “I Keep Forgettin’. ” So we make room for all of it. But the big part of it is Christmas.

When you were on tour with the Doobie Brothers or Steely Dan, did you ever get together and jam on Christmas songs around the holidays?

No, we never really toured at this time of year. It wasn't until I did a couple of Christmas records that we ever toured around Christmas. ... I don't even know that we ever sat around and sang Christmas songs as a family. Mostly we'd listen to Christmas records, and I would do some in shows over the years. We're Irish Catholics, so sitting around and singing Christmas songs, we'd all get too emotional. It wouldn't be any fun.

In the last couple of years, you’ve appeared on records by Animal Collective and Holy Ghost. Are there any other young bands that you enjoy?

I’m probably behind the curve on that, quite honestly. I came to know Grizzly Bear, and I went to one of his shows in New York. . . . I was really intrigued by their music and their fearless approach to doing what their muse dictated and not worry so much about being commercial. Whenever I hear that in a new band, I’m drawn to it. So much of what I remember growing up was like that: People doing what they do, and not worrying so much about what other people want them to do. But the music business has become so tightly wound in its mechanics and its machinery that you have bands where it seems like their sole reason for being is to imitate the psychedelic music of the ’60s, and frankly not do it that well. So whenever I hear a band that’s making new music, it really excites me.

Between “Yacht Rock” and your appearance on Jimmy Fallon [singing “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” in a round with Fallon and Justin Timberlake], you’ve become something of a pop-culture icon.

I think that the fact that it’s pop culture leaves room for a little humor. You have to be able to laugh at your past. In some ways, what we were most serious about in the ’70s is humorous today. It’s great. It holds its own, I think. We still play with a band of good musicians, we play music the way that we grew up playing it, without too much technology. In the ’70s, there was no shortage of people taking themselves too seriously, as “artistes,” if you will. I think we all had a tendency to do that at some point in our career. So looking back on that, it’s fun to laugh at it.

MICHAEL MCDONALD

Saturday at 8 p.m.
at the Music Center
at Strathmore, 5301 Tuckerman Lane, Bethesda.
301-581-5100. www.strathmore.org. $36-$88.

Fritz Hahn has written about bars, drinks and nightlife for the Washington Post Weekend Section since 2003, but he also writes about everything from Civil War battlefields to sailing classes. A product of Prince George's County public schools, Fritz majored in journalism at the University of Maryland and lives in the District.
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