Concert Review – Michael McDonald – Lawrence, Kansas

 

REVIEW AND PHOTOS BY DAN LYBARGER

 

Michael McDonald

The Lied Center, Lawrence, Kansas

August 12, 2018

 

If there is a way to age gracefully, it might be to simply admit you’re no longer young.

Throughout his 90-minute set at the Lied Center at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kan., on August 12, Michael McDonald made no attempt to pass himself off as anything other than a 66-year-old man.

When he introduced vocalist Drea Rheneé, the former Doobie Brothers singer and keyboardist praised her chops and that she relieved the crowd from the “middle-aged ugliness” of the rest of the band. He added, “You’ll notice I said ‘middle-aged.’ Who am I kidding?”

With a crowd that was primarily within throwing distance of that number, that wasn’t a problem. Part of the reason McDonald can still put on a good show is that he and his tunes were always for grownups. In both his solo work and his songs with his former band, McDonald has always sung about heartbreak that’s long removed from the teenage experience. In “Real Love” and “What a Fool Believes,” McDonald softly laments he or someone else has broken up and that it has happened many times before.

This may explain why the songs still sounded good last Sunday night and why people who aren’t trying to recapture their youth can listen to him without embarrassment. McDonald’s smooth as marshmallows delivery doesn’t deserve the label of “yacht rock,” because his roots are in St. Louis where the river vessels look a little different.

As he performed new tunes from last year’s Wide Open album like “Hail Mary” and “Just Strong Enough,” McDonald’s voice cracked just enough to prevent his band from slipping into easy listening. For the latter he even stood up from his piano stool for a few seconds, giving the song a feeling of vitality that wouldn’t occur if he were sitting like the audience.

It also helps that McDonald still has his vocal chops and nimble fingers. When he broke into familiar tunes like “Minute by Minute,” he’d begin them by adding jazzy touches to keep the arrangements from seeming too robotic.

He also avoided hogging the spotlight. He’d usually leave the showiest solos to guitarist Bernie Chiaravalle, sax player Mark Douthit and keyboardist Pat Coil. The three put just enough of a sting in the arrangements to keep the songs from being mellow enough to induce napping.

Rheneé had the unenviable task of replicating Patti LaBelle’s verses during the Burt Bacharach/Carole Bayer Sager hit “On My Own,” which may be most ironically titled duet ever. Fortunately, she easily kept up with LaBelle’s vocal gymnastics.

McDonald’s midwestern drawl is surprisingly clearer than his singing voice, but his stage banter was remarkably sincere. Having grown up in the St. Louis suburb, Ferguson, Mo., his later performance of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” was expectedly moving, and he was clearly aware the issues Gaye lamented are sadly still with us.

Thankfully, so is McDonald, who helped open the Lied Center’s 25th anniversary on a high note.

Set list:

Yah Mo B There

Here To Love You

I Keep Forgettin’

Find It in Your Heart

Just Strong Enough

I Can Let Go Now

Sweet Freedom

On My Own

Hail Mary

Beautiful Child

Half Truth

Minute by Minute

What a Fool Believes

Encore

What’s Goin’ On

Taking It to the Streets

Dren McDonald talks video game music and his band The String Arcade

Dren McDonald is a musician/composer since and runs the website, nerdtracks. He currently also creates music and sound design for video games. Recently he came together to form a band, The String Arcade, and has an album coming out on February 11th. “The String Arcade” spans a few decades in video game history from arcade classics including “Galaga”, “TRON” to 8-bit eras with “Legend of Zelda” to more recent hits with “Portal 2” and “Minecraft”. Media Mikes had a chance to chat video games with Dren and his album.

Mike Gencarelli: How did The String Arcade come together?
Dren McDonald: The creation of The String Arcade didn’t come from one singular “really big idea”, but more like a recipe of several idea ingredients that came together at the right time. The initial spark came from a personal challenge. After working on a lot of client music for the past few years, I wanted to really work on a project that was meaningful to me and that reflected the idea “what music would I make right now, if I could make anything”. Clearly I wasn’t thinking about doing an album of cover songs with that initial thought.

However I’d always been completely obsessed with the music from the film Stranger Than Paradise, by John Lurie. I bought the soundtrack album back when the film came out, hoping that the Screamin’ Jay Hawkins tune, “I Put a Spell on You” would be on there. It wasn’t. But the first side of the record was the entire string quartet soundtrack from the film, and it’s one of the few pieces of music that I continue to listen over the years, ever since the first listen. So I wanted to do something like Stranger Than Paradise: a bunch of string quartet music.

So I started working on this idea, and the first tune I completed was ” Optimism For an Improvement in The John Situation” (a reference to the fact that Lurie hasn’t been playing/writing music due to an illness). This tune served as a blueprint for the other music, and I began to start rearranging some of my own music from games…and in all cases, appending and expanding all of those pieces with the intention of having them played by musicians.

Concurrently, a local project called the Alameda Music Project (alamedamusicproject.org) was starting to raise funds in order to begin their after school music program, a K-5 El Sistema based classical music program with strings, chorus and percussion. So we decided to make this ‘recording project’ a fundraiser, with all sales going to support the new music program. But a CD of all Dren McDonald chamber music wasn’t going to move the fundraising needle too much, so more thought was put into the project.

I started listening closely to some of my favorite game music from my youth (Altered Beast, Legend of Zelda, Galaga) and wondered how those might sound if arranged for string quartet. And how might they sound by using Stranger Than Paradise as a model for the mood? It was a clash of very disparate worlds, but the juxtaposition was one that got my musical brain excited. Soon after we launched the Kickstarter.

MG: How did you choose which games and specific songs where chosen for the album?
DM: I chose games that 1) I was a fan of, 2) that I could see fitting into this musical blueprint some way, so that the recording didn’t come off as a novelty album and 3) games that would reach out to kids with the hopes that they’d be inspired to play music. The recording is a fundraiser for a music program, so some thought was given to the song selection with that in mind as well.

Back to this “musical blueprint” idea, I did want to pick songs that would lend themselves towards being moved, twisted, rearranged and manipulated in a way that spoke to me. Really creative music arranging can be just as rewarding as composition, (in some of these charts there’s a lot of added composition), so I didn’t want to simply ‘cover’ the music, but inject it with emotions or musical turns that moved me.

MG: What is it about 8-bit games and their music that still resonates today?
DM: Sometimes we hear discussions about how 8-bit or 16-bit games had more memorable music than games of our current generation, and I think that’s largely due to the fact that game design has changed so radically due to technology. With the NES, you basically had music or you didn’t. There was no ‘ambience’ really, so it was on or off. So it ‘had’ to be memorable, or catchy so that it wouldn’t make us insane while we played. So if we played Legend of Zelda, or Ecco or Altered Beast in our youth, that music has definitely carved a way into our brains and made a home there. Last year I remember play the Tron arcade machine, which I hadn’t played in many years, and was astounded at how well I remembered all of the little musical pieces that played during game play (especially when you die!). I’m no psychologist, but I think there’s something about that association with a game that comes from playing it, and having a great experience that sticks with you. Hearing the music outside of the context might just bring back those good feelings.

MG: What games didn’t make the cut from this album?
DM: There are certainly games with wonderful soundtracks that I love that I considered…Journey, Dear Esther, Bioshock (1). But I didn’t feel like the contribution that I might make to that music would resonate. As I said, I wanted run these tunes thru my ‘blueprint’ and after thinking about some of this other music, I’m not sure I would have been successful with that approach. When you are interpreting music that had been previously represented by synth or chip sounds, there is a little more freedom there. Even in the case of something like Outlaws or Plants Vs Zombies, the change in instrumentation and musical style was enough to unlock that freedom. Those other soundtracks I mentioned were already created with live string players, so any attempt to cover them in the manner that I approached the other music would have probably fallen flat. Listeners have already heard those soundtracks with strings, and a ‘new’ version would likely be judged as an inferior one.

MG: Tell us about what happens with the proceeds of the album?
DM: 100% of the proceeds goes to the Alameda Music Project (alamedamusicproject.org) with is an after school, K-5 music program for strings, percussion and chorus. It’s a tuition-free program in a Title 1 school, so that kids who might not be able to afford to study music, will have that chance. It’s 5 days a week, after school care (homework, snacks and music) and it’s based on the El Sistema model, which was the music program that began in Venezuela 40 years. The same program that Gustavo Dudamel (creative director/conductor of the LA Phil) had gone thru as a child.

MG: Can we expect follow-up albums or a tour in the future?
DM: Good question! There are no tour plans, but depending on how this record does, and how the music program does this year I’m sure we’d love to do a follow up. There will be a CD release party, with the quartet, and lots of video games to play (include arcade machines, old consoles and several indie game studios who will be there showing their games.) That is March 7th at Rhythmix in Alameda, CA and we are planning to stream video from that show as well. We’ll put details on thestringarcade.com

Good afternoon Mr. & Mrs. Michael McDonald and all the ships at sea – it’s The Mike O’Meara Show!

It would be difficult for me to put into words how elated I was when I first discovered the Mike O’Meara Show podcast a few years ago. I had just recently started my career as a CPA and was now a desk-jockey from 9-5, Monday through Friday. I had been a listener of The Don and Mike Show, the predecessor to the Mike O’Meara Show, back when I lived in New York and it was broadcast on WNEW. That show got me through many-a-night of boring high school homework. Now, years later, Mike and crew were suddenly back to save me from utter boredom once again.

Frustrated with the evolution of terrestrial radio and tired of being subject to the constant control of corporate broadcasting companies, Mike O’Meara has changed with the times by ditching the standard format and creating the Mike O’Meara Show podcast. Alongside Mike is Robb Spewak, a former cohort from The Don and Mike Show, and Oscar Santana, whom Mike and Robb met while broadcasting at WJFK in Washington, DC. In Fact, it was Oscar that inspired the move to the podcast format. Together, the experienced trio delivers quality that terrestrial shows could only dream of replicating.

Mike, Robb and Oscar entertain listeners with real-life personal stories, pop-culture, current news and a whole lot of ball-busting (Funnnnnn!). Recorded in the living room studios of the O’Meara Estate in Manassas, Virginia, these three likeable man-asses have a level of chemistry that’ll make you feel like you’re sitting in a room with a group of close friends. As time goes by, you feel like you know the cast and their friends and family personally. You’ll hear Carla, Mike’s wife, as they phone her at work so he can apologize for freaking out about a pot that sat in the kitchen sink too long. You’ll hear Robb talk about his obsession with Elvis and the many Elvis-themed iPhone cases he’s made using Vista Print. You’ll hear Oscar talk about his girlfriend, Shannon, and how she burned his new hardwood floors with a curling iron. But most of all, you’ll come to hear how talented, intelligent, and good-hearted these three slobs are.

From time to time Mike will read a letter on the show in which a listener talks about their personal life and how the show has impacted them in a positive way. I can relate to all of them, as each day I get to escape my near-comatose state in my cubicle to tune in for just over an hour of conversation with my friends. The podcast airs every weekday at 10:30(ish) EDT, and you can stream live (with video) at www.MikeOMearaShow.com. You can also download the shows directly from the website, from iTunes, or using the show’s app on your smartphone. Heck, there’s even a YouTube page! The show is free, but once you’re hooked there are uncensored bonus shows available for a pittance. And guys, if you can only afford the free show – at least throw them a bone and check out their advertisers – they don’t suck.

Saturday, December 7, 2013 marks the four year anniversary of the Mike O’Meara Show podcast. If you’re just now learning this for the first time, you no longer have an excuse for not listening. Come Monday, you’d better get your ass to www.MikeOMearaShow.com and tune in. You’ve already wasted four years. But don’t worry; all the archives since day one are available on the site – so get started playing catch-up!

 

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