Michael McDonald, Symphony Hall.
How many white singers are capable of pulling off creditable performances of soul classics immortalised by Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles?
The answer, probably, can be found on the fingers of one hand.
But then ask how many white singers can fulfil this requirement as well as bringing their own sugar-sweet pop and soul to the party.
Now, the answer is arguably one. It is fortunate then that the man in question was centre stage at Symphony Hall. Enter Michael McDonald, part grizzly bear, part angel.
The former Doobie Brother’s non-top two hour show was a blissful vocal journey through the highlights of his own distinguished back catalogue and a demonstration of the timeless joys of some of the greatest soul songs ever penned, including outstanding renditions of I Heard It Through The Grapevine and Living For The City.
With the stage cleared of everyone except McDonald, the singer even found time for Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah – it was just a man, a keyboard and a God-given talent.
The scope of the baritone’s vocal range is such that Symphony Hall was at times jazz piano lounge, gospel chapel and funked-out dance hall.
Some performers struggle to get their voices across in such a daunting venue but McDonald can fill it with a melodic whisper.
The Doobie Brothers standards What A Fool Believes and a shattering jazzy/gospel take on Takin’ It To The Streets were massive crowd-pleasers while solo hits such as I Keep Forgettin’ were polished beyond belief yet packed with verve and emotion. Rarely has the pain of splitting up been so accurately dissected.
McDonald’s version of Ray Charles’ You Don’t Know Me – from his new Motown covers album Soul Speak – was simply beautiful. One of the night’s last numbers, Gaye’s Vietnam War-era masterpiece What’s Going On, captured the song’s haunting, tortured plea.
It’s baffling how a song written 37 years ago can sound like an anthem for our own troubled times. “It is a song for peace – because nothing else works,” said McDonald.
Birmingham’s own Jaki Graham made a terrific unbilled guest appearance, showcasing her wonderfully rich voice and her thunderously strutting thighs. Duetting with McDonald on Living For The City and On My Own (a hit for the US star with Patti LaBelle) graphically demonstrated that class doesn’t have a sell-by date.
“Have a great summer,” said McDonald as he signed off, smiled, and walked from the stage like a sweat-soaked prizefighter. Inspirational.