Michael McDonald and Marc Cohn impress at the Garde
The phrase “distinctive voice” gets tossed around pretty liberally when people discuss singers.
But, in the case of the two stars who played the Garde Arts Center on Sunday, it absolutely applies.
Michael McDonald and Marc Cohn each possess a voice blessed with its own unique sandpaper-edged beauty.
They both had their biggest hits in the 1980s — McDonald with the Doobie Brothers (starting in the late 1970s) and then solo and Cohn with, most famously, “Walking in Memphis” — but, based on their gig at the Garde, time has barely dimmed the luster of their vocals.
The best moments of the concert happened in the encore, when opening act Cohn came back onstage to join McDonald and his masterful band. The men dueted on a slow, bluesy version of The Boxtops’ “The Letter” and dug into Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” (in introducing the latter, McDonald made brief reference to the state of the world and hoping for peace).
They then tore it up with “Takin’ it to the Streets,” one of McDonald’s hits with the Doobie Brothers, and it ended the night on a powerfully rocking note for the 1,000-plus fans in attendance.
The encore was so good, it’s hard not to think that McDonald and Cohn should work together on an album, stat.
McDonald is on the road performing in support of his new album, “Wide Open,” which marks his first release of new material in 17 years. He said that the band was going to bludgeon the audience with new material; it was a joke, of course, but I’d argue that too much time was spent on the new songs, which tended to feel long. It slowed the momentum of the concert at times, as it wont to happen when an artist trots out new tunes.
That said, the numbers feel like a logical progression from his earlier work, with McDonald letting his husky, soulful voice loose on songs that meld soul and pop sounds.
The strongest of the “Wide Open” representatives on Sunday was “Hail Mary,” which McDonald performed with wife Amy Holland, who sang backup during the concert.
As for the greatest hits, the jumpy piano and vocal energy of “What a Fool Believes” remained ridiculously catchy. For pure romantic lushness, you couldn’t beat McDonald joining with back-up singer Drea Rhenee for “On My Own,” with Rhenee ably stepping into Patti LaBelle's stilettos.
McDonald, 65, leaned into each song with abandon, pounding on the piano, jiggling a leg in time with the beat, and moving his head so much that his combed-back hair fell toward his face. (He joked at one point that he needed a haircut.)
McDonald, too, came across as just a genuine, nice guy. Added touch: he took time to thank his own crew, which travels with the band, and the Garde’s crew.
As for Cohn, 58, he offered a strong set populated by fan favorites like “True Companion,” “The Rainy Season” and a blistering “Walking in Memphis.” The numbers tended to be slower or midtempo piano-based pieces, which were effective in their own right, but he got downright fiery on the throwback stomp of “29 Ways.” Fun, fun, fun.
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