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Courtesy MIKE STEVENS | City of Salem
Michael McDonald joined the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra at the Salem Civic Center on Friday to kick off the RSO’s 60th anniversary pops celebration. The combination was powerful.
Saturday, October 12, 2013
Every era of pop music has a few voices that just stand out. In the 1970s and 1980s, Michael McDonald’s pipes were often at the top of the charts — first as a standout backing voice with Steely Dan, then breaking out with the Doobie Brothers before he went into commercial high gear with his solo career.
On Friday night at Salem Civic Center, McDonald showed that his chops and style have held up strongly. The Roanoke Symphony Orchestra showed its versatility, blending in seamlessly, gorgeously, sometimes powerfully behind hits from McDonald, Motown and more.
McDonald, his six-piece band and the RSO put on a party for the symphony’s 60th anniversary pops kickoff. Dozens in the crowd of 2,452 — capacity was about 3,800 — had risen to dance and clap along by the end of about 80 minutes.
McDonald’s own songs were at the fore. His bassist, Tommy Sims, took the James Ingram part on “Yah Mo B There.” The orchestra’s horns punched through “Sweet Freedom.” And by the time McDonald hit the last vocal notes of “I Keep Forgetting,” it was clear that his instrument was undamaged by time.
The early crowd favorite was his cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Heard It Through The Grapevine,” part of McDonald’s first hit album of Motown covers, from 2003. It got folks dancing and drew the biggest applause — at least until he broke out the Doobie Brothers’ “Minute By Minute.”
More Motown covers, including “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” gave backing vocalist Drea Rhenee Merritt a chance to show her substantial skill.
Conductor David Stewart Wiley led the strings through lush versions of “You Don’t Know Me,” from Ray Charles “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music,” and the Gerry Goffin/Carole King cover, “Hey Girl.”
McDonald repeatedly complimented Wiley, the symphony and concertmaster Akemi Takayama. Wiley was equally impressed with his guest performer.
“I wish all pops artists could be as fun, cool, laid-back, musical and versatile as Michael McDonald,” Wiley told the crowd during the symphony’s opening set.
Wiley introduced another versatile player, mandolinist and clarinetist Jeff Midkiff, who moved to center stage to perform a couple of his compositions.
Midkiff’s “A Visit From The Muse” and the first movement of “From The Blue Ridge” gave the Roanoke Valley for the second consecutive night an intriguing lesson in the depth of music possible on mandolin. On Thursday night, Chris Thile had performed several Bach pieces at Jefferson Center.
Here, Midkiff’s music with the symphony came across like a hybrid of composer Aaron Copeland and violinist/composer Mark O’Connor — the latter, like Midkiff, a skilled bluegrass player.
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