By Chris Varias
The Cincinnati Enquirer
The double bill at the Cincinnati Zoo Sunday was a sort of battle between R&B cities, pitting the confectionary soul of Detroit against the deep-groove funk of New Orleans.
And ex-Doobie Brother Michael McDonald, armed with a slew of covers from his new Motown-tribute album, proved no match for the standard bearers of the New Orleans sound, the Neville Brothers.
The show was part of the Wild Nights at the Zoo concert series.
McDonald wasn't bad, but following the Nevilles is a tall order. The Neville Brothers' 90-minute set alternated between world-class dance music in the form of mambo-beat Mardi Gras anthems and world-class vocal balladry, brought forth by the great Aaron Neville. The group's encore summarized the set to great effect, beginning with Aaron's beautiful rendering of "Amazing Grace," followed by a medley of "One Love" and "People Get Ready" reset in Crescent City funk.
After that climactic ending came a 45-minute break before McDonald took the stage. It took even longer for the blue-eyed soul man to work up any of the Nevilles' momentum, which vanished during the lengthy intermission.
Backed by a five-person band, McDonald played a mix of Doobie Brothers hit songs, solo material and covers from the cleverly titled Motown album, released last week.
McDonald didn't shy away from overworked classics like "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing" and "Ain't No Mountain High Enough." These were among the crowd's favorites. His performances were adequate, since he kept his trademark soul-signifying grunt-like noises to a minimum.
He didn't fare as well on the lesser-known material, namely a pair of Stevie Wonder tunes. "All in Love is Fair" indulged McDonald's weakness for slow, slow songs. "I Believe" was better, but even on that one he slowed the tempo. Neither song was an improvement on Wonder's original.
McDonald would be better off sticking to his own stuff. The crowd perked up each time he played a song like "I Keep Forgettin'," a hit off his solo debut album, or a Doobies tune.
One spirited gentleman in the crowd repeatedly yelled for "China Grove." McDonald failed to honor the request, probably because he wasn't in the band when the Doobies released that song. He did play "Taking It to the Streets" and "What a Fool Believes," songs he recorded with the band.
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