Since the mid-1970s, Michael McDonald has crooned and cooed his way into our senses with a rich, soulful manly baritone unlike any other. If you could create a sonic model based on fine, aged whiskey being poured into thick hot caramel, you’d come up with McDonald’s vocal éclat. Away from the recording and touring circuits for almost a decade, McDonald returned with 2016’s Last Waltz tribute tour dedicated to The Band. Then there was a co-composition with hip, nu-model R&B bassist Thundercat, and now a buoyant new album, Wide Open, for which he wrote or cowrote nearly every tune. He plays the Merriam Theater on Friday. We caught him running through an airport for this interview.
Let’s start with something important: Who has the good hair gene in your family? You have remarkable hair.
The good hair gene! [Laughs] That was my old man, who had the greatest hair in the whole family.
You’re on this 18-month run of live and recorded activity after chilling for several years. What motivated you to get all this done at once?
Everybody’s career is marked with periods where things seem to happen more often, and other times where you just keep trudging a road, staying in the game. That is, until you get excited about a project, or become part of a good one. I always tell my son, ‘If you want to make a living, get used to saying yes, do as many things as you can, because you never know when doors will open and close. These are creative opportunities.’ I look at the Doobie Brothers, and that’s a band that keeps the engine purring by touring and staying on the road in good times and bad.
Not to bring up a sad subject, but the passing of Steely Dan’s Walter Becker: His songs were urbane, cosmopolitan, and his playing stellar. We know your voice first from working with Becker and Donald Fagen.
Walter’s death was blindsiding. We knew he had health struggles, but not to that extent. He was a private guy. I liked him as a person. He was a kind guy [with] such as wicked, sardonic sense of humor. Of all the feats he accomplished — his iconic musical prowess, songwriting abilities — I’ll remember that he was always kind. In this business, you notice those things.
I thought of you as a sideman to Steely Dan when you did that Last Waltz tour with Warren Haynes and Don Was. What guided you there?
I just liked all the guys on that tour, was a big fan of The Band, and that last live gig of theirs was legendary, worth reliving, We all thought it was a privilege to be asked to be part of it. To play that book of songs was a real joy, especially when we got tighter.
Age can be defied in a voice, which is something you prove on Wide Open. What are you doing?
The biggest thing for me is being on much better behavior than I used to be. I don’t drink or smoke, and I sleep as much as I can, which is not that easy on tour. A good solid five hours works for me. It’s mostly what I don’t do that saves my voice.
Are you cool with nu-R&B? You performed with Solange and worked with Thundercat. A lot of what they do has touchstones in your sound, only more spacey.
I am a big fan of this whole new sound because Solange and Thundercat are bringing a jazz element into it, which is natural and inherent. R&B is where jazz came from, so it’s nice to feel that evolution happening again. Thundercat is an amalgam of his influences — Jaco Pastorious, Stanley Clarke — yet he is his own invention. Plus, he’s brought that jamming into a composer’s place. He’s writing songs. And he never sleeps or puts that bass down. I admire that he is always creating. I’m so the opposite way. You have to cattle-prod me to do the next thing.
What made you want to work with Thundercat? You didn’t just sing “Show You the Way,” but cowrote it with him and Kenny Loggins.
It was fascinating how it happened. Kenny was responsible for that. Loggins’ kids came to him, and my kids, too — they love the guy — when Thundercat mentioned Kenny and I in an interview. Kenny took the initiative, contacted his manager, and said he’d love to write something with both of us. It was very free.
The nicest thing about Wide Open is that it seems to share this freeing sensibility. You cowrote most of it but penned its two best songs on your own. What was running through your head when you wrote “Hail Mary?” Were you were taking to God, gods, or someone you love?
That song is a metaphor for a more general feeling, this scenario of men and women. At 65, I’m thinking I’d like to run into the end zone one more time — that surprises me, as I didn’t think I’d feel that way at this age, the feeling of being here and wanting to compete, say something. So I used that old “Hail Mary pass” analogy. I didn’t think I’d be touring and making records at 65. I figured I’d be relaxing and watching television.
Man, and here I was thinking it had this lofty religious connotation. You cover Richard Stekol’s “Free a Man,” which deals with social issues of repression. People don’t normally think of you when it comes to matters of justice and oppression.
I dug the idea that we might be able to play it live with that deep groove, but I loved the words. They resonate. And I’m not so foreign to social awareness in song. I sneak them in, say like “Taking It to the Streets.” You’re right, though, I normally stick with love and human nature. That’s my wheelhouse.
With Marc Cohn, 8 p.m. Friday at the Merriam Theater, 250 S. Broad Street, $55-350, kimmelcenter.org