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Lisa Torem watches co-headliners Michael McDonald and Chaka Khan perform many of their greatest hits at the Ravinia Pavilion at Highland Park, Illinois.
It’s not every night that an audience gets the opportunity to witness two legends perform on one bill, so it was no grand surprise that when Michael McDonald and Chaka Khan co-headlined at Ravinia’s Pavilion on July 6, 2019, as part of their extensive summer tour, that the Pavilion seats were filled to capacity and fans found themselves clamouring for lawn space.
And despite their frenetic summer schedules, both artists have new recordings to hawk: McDonald’s first album since 2000, ‘Wide Open’ has met with diverse critical acclaim and Khan’s vibrant ‘Hello Happiness’ brings to light all of her genre-bending acumen.
To get everyone to their seats, the impressive, six-piece Isaiah Sharkey Band, featuring a smooth Flying V, and earthy sax and vocals played an inspirational warm-up set.
Michael McDonald’s set came first. He was dressed completely in black, with his silver hair neatly pulled back in a ponytail. Judging by the T-shirts, there were many Doobie Brothers fans in attendance, who were probably familiar with many of McDonald’s original tunes.
Although it is one of his most beloved songs, he didn’t make us wait very long to hear it. He began the set list with ‘I Keep Forgettin’ (Every Time You’re Near)', a solo career favourite from debut, ‘If That’s What It Takes,’ where vibrant, background vocals added just the right punch against his grainy, expressive pipes. This was the only number on which McDonald strummed an electric guitar, who afterwards he sat down at the piano. The ballad was greatly enhanced by Mark Douthit’s silky sax solo and Jacob Lowrey’s melodic bass lines
Part of McDonald’s songwriting fluidity, regardless of the era, stems from his gospel-edged piano chops and the way he juxtaposes his soulful voice against the acoustic piano. His support band not only respected his repertoire, but added excellent touches. Besides the aforementioned Douthit and Lowrey, the stellar touring band consists of excellent B3 organist, Pat Coil, percussionist Dan Needham, electric guitarist Bernie Chiaravalle, who has been a mainstay with McDonald since the late 80s and the singular, but dynamic songstress, Drea Rhenee. It was great fun to hear these seasoned musicians work in tandem to create an uncanny wall of sound.
Early on and throughout his fourteen-song set, he made the time to graciously thank everyone that made the evening possible. Thus, his vocal performance was as compelling as his Midwestern humility.
Best known for lead and background vocals and keyboard contributions with the Doobie Brothers in the mid-70s, and until the early 80s, and as a keyboardist, backing vocalist and touring partner with Steely Dan, starting in 1974 and well into 2006, when he joined their summer tour, Michael McDonald has established himself as an industry fixture. In addition, this sought-after artist has collaborated with the likes of Kenny Loggins, Christopher Cross. Patti LaBelle and Joni Mitchell and too many other artists to mention.
The audience grew most heated when McDonald belted and banged out the catchy, rhythmic progressions of Doobie Brothers hits, ‘Takin’ It to The Streets’ and Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On,’ on which co-headliner Khan joined in.
Other Doobie Brothers chestnuts, ‘It Keeps You Runnin’, 'Minute by Minute’ and 1980 Grammy winning ballad, ‘What a Fool Believes’ were definitive crowd pleasures too. The stylish Ms. Rhenee has a delightful presence and throws herself completely into her work. That said, she took the ballad, ‘On My Own’ and indeed made it her very own.
Then again, comprised mostly of well-known love, or then again, unrequited, love ballads, the set certainly could have been a stand-alone, but the spot-on fills and efficient solos were masterfully executed, and when McDonald did appear solo under the spot, on ‘I Just Can’t Let Go,’ his deeply personal performance was duly noted and celebrated with an outpour of gratitude.
Chicago is where Khan super charged her vocal career by fronting the American funk band Rufus in 1972, and kept the spirit moving well into the 80s. Many of the older audience members harboured fond memories of their lively club sets. The multiple Grammy winner embarked on a solo career in the latter part of that decade.
Fortunately, Khan can still rely on most of the upper and lower notes of her impressive range. And after forty years, she knows how to spar with the crowd like nobody’s business. Known for her bold sense of style, she came prepared too, with no less than three glitzy costume changes, bringing the best of Vegas to the sometimes staid second city.
Her three backing singers and six-piece band were an essential part of the show. The vocalists posed, danced, flipped fans back and forth, provided expert harmonies and acted as a cheering squad for Khan and the instrumentalists when they weren’t embellishing the star’s fast-moving melodies.
Her funky R & B inflected material did not disappoint. The set began with dance-friendly ‘This is My Night,’ and the band quickly raised the bar for the expressive, ‘Do U Love What U Feel’. Patrons stage right leaped out of their chairs to wave their arms the minute the opening chords of the Stevie Wonder-penned ‘Tell Me Something Good’ electrified the house.
‘Everlasting Love’ was just as spirited as the early 80s smash, ‘Whatcha Gonna Do For Me?’ from her third solo album by the same name. Khan handled the steady stream of chunky phrases with a ton of personality. The ballad ‘Stay’ received short shrift, as Khan only gifted us one verse, but the swirling rendition of ‘Sweet Thing’ more than made up for that forgivable slight, with powerhouse singer Tiffany at the helm.
After Khan gracefully exited, the band took centre stage and treated us to buoyant solos first, during ‘A Night in Tunisia’ and again, when expert bassist Melvin Davis pumped up a unique version of ‘My Funny Valentine’.
The mid-80’s ‘Through the Fire’ was the most contrasting select of the night, with its slow-burning, but powerful build. Then, after a warm introduction, Khan invited McDonald back to the stage for their ‘You Belong to Me’ duet. Though they sometimes overshadowed each other, their mutual respect was visibly clear.
Khan mesmerised on the Prince cover, ‘I Feel For U’ and Ashford-Simpson’s egalitarian anthem, ‘I’m Every Woman’ which appeared on the 1978 ‘Chaka’. After she and her band members exited the stage, audience members began to stir. In another second, we would have started clapping and urging the band back on stage. But Khan and her stylized clan outsmarted us in this highly orchestrated show. Begging became unnecessary. A backing singer asked straight out, "Do you want to hear one more?" And the magic continued one more time.
Pop, R & B, disco, soul, funk... This trip down memory lane and beyond allowed listeners to enjoy the best of two worlds under one roof, and how often does that happen?