Combining the best in '70’s/'80’s funk and sensual R&B with the era’s coolest and grooviest (literally and figuratively) blue-eyed soul, pop legends Michael McDonald and Chaka Khan—collective owners of an astounding 15 Grammys—conquered the Hollywood Bowl with a loose, fun-spirited and often scorching blend of Yacht Rock nostalgia and contemporary energy.
There was a moment early on in Khan’s opening hour where she slyly said, “We’re gonna do the '70’s, the '80’s…and let’s leave it at that.” Considering that early this year, the singer released Hello Happiness, her first album of original material in over a decade, this was a bold choice. In line with the title of that project, and drawing on years as a solo artist and of hitmaking with Rufus, Khan truly knows what makes her fans happy—and on this last night of July, weeks into one of the summer’s most anticipated dual tours, it wasn’t trying out new material. Ditto McDonald for the most part. Although like last year, when he played the venue with Christopher Cross and Kenny Loggins, he added to his set “Just Strong Enough,” an impassioned ballad from his 2017 collection Wide Open. For the most part, however, he stuck with the hits—the Doobie Brothers classics, his own pop gems and hopping arrangements from his Motown classics albums.
Sometimes when artists of the same era, but whose essential styles diverge, tour together, their sets are like two completely separate entities, with cross-reference limited to a shout-out for the audience to applaud the opening act. Khan and McDonald created the night’s most memorable and unexpected moments with duets on two of his best-known songs, each peppered into the other’s set. He joined her for a silky, sultry spin through “You Belong To Me,” originally a hit for co-writer Carly Simon and which McDonald recorded with Khan on her 2007 album Funk This. She returned the favor on his second encore, a pumpin’, churched up jam of “Takin’ It to The Streets,” adding deeper urgency to the second verse after biding her time with hipster dance moves and singing along with the classic chorus.
Both performances zeroed in and zoomed about like non-stop hit parades. Coming out after a lengthy band buildup in a long, funky, flowing beaded outfit my friend perfectly described as a “disco prom dress,” Khan set her intention for the next hour with the funk/rocker “This Is My Night” and had a blast interacting with her three amazing backing vocalists. On songs like this and “Whatcha Gonna Do,” Khan’s rapport with them, the call and response conversations and wild vocal runs over their infectious choruses, were in the classic vein of Ray Charles and the Raelettes to explosive effect. She followed with two more funk-rock classic jams, “Do What You Feel” and the coolly shuffling “Tell Me Something Good” before chilling a bit with the sultry power ballad “Everlasting Love.”
Other highlights were the spirited singalong of the chorus to her trademark romance “Sweet Thing,” her exuberant blast into Prince territory with the mid-eighties romp “I Feel For You” and “I’m Every Woman,” her rousing, discofied anthem that crossed genre lines when it came to dancing in the seats. Her leg lifts mimicking the movements of her band during an encore of her always delightfully buoyant “Ain’t Nobody” were a hoot as well. The only oddity of the show was a way-too-long costume change that allowed her band to solo extensively but also gave short shrift to her version of “My Funny Valentine.”
Obviously known for his brilliant piano pounding and old school keyboard modulations, McDonald threw an enticing curve right off the bat, grabbing an electric guitar for a minimalist bluesy stroll through his first post-Doobie solo smash “I Keep Forgettin’,” which featured an emotional powerhouse solo by saxophonist Mark Douthit. His impassioned, guttural voice aiming mightily to balance intense soulfulness and hitting all the high notes, the singer reminded us how he ruled the funky/smooth mid-eighties with lively runs through “Ya Mo B There,” “Sweet Freedom” wrapped around the pounding funk/blues of the Doobies’ “Here to Love You.” Patti Labelle was not in the house, but nobody seemed to notice because backing vocalist Drea Rhenee was all aces as McDonald’s romantic lament partner on “On My Own.”
The two created a classic old school R&B duet vibe on “Ain’t Nothing Like The Real Thing,” which McDonald paired perfectly with his high octane spin through “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” While two of his most notable Doobies classics “Minute By Minute” and “What A Fool Believes” were expected set-closing crowd-pleasers, it was also a pleasure to hear the slightly lesser-known, but no less engaging “Real Love” between other better-known numbers. Before he and Khan took it to the streets, she joined him on the still quite relevant than ever Marvin Gaye classic “What’s Going On,” dominating the duet with her mix of scat and skyscraping vocal runs.
No review of McDonald’s show should end without mentioning the contributions of his energized, dripping in funk band, which includes Pat Coil on keys, drummer Dan Needham, bassist Jacob Lowrey and masterful guitarist Bernie Chiaravalle, who has been touring with the singer for over 30 years.