Michael McDonald took the stage two minutes before the Doobie Brothers were slated to begin Friday night at Treasure Island Resort and Casino amphitheater. And he began to noodle on the piano, the introduction to the opening selection.
McDonald remembered what happened last September. He missed the Doobies' performance at the Minnesota State Fair because he came down with COVID-19 — the only gig he's missed on the band's extended 50th anniversary tour. He was ready to rock on Friday.
"So glad to finally be here," McDonald said when he was introduced mid-concert.
He spoke louder with his singing voice and keyboard work. His vocals were consistently impassioned, his instrumental passages consistently inspired. As the Doobies found a great groove on "Minute by Minute," McDonald became lost in his soulful serenading, displaying the transcendent intensity of Joe Cocker. There was an urgency in his voice on the funky "It Keeps You Runnin.'"
McDonald's highlight — and arguably the high point of the concert — was an instrumental duet of his piano and Marc Russo's saxophone as a prelude to "Takin' It to the Streets." It was a little gospely, a little bit reminiscent of Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years," quite soulful, so musical and so groovy.
Getting to hear McDonald deliver 1979's "What a Fool Believes" was a treat for the 8,500 fans, especially those who didn't get to hear it at the Doobies' State Fair performance. Getting to hear McDonald, 70, the voice behind several key Doobies' hits, was a must after all these years. He last toured with them in 1996.
It's too bad that he was treated almost like a secondary player, with his keyboards set up far from the front of the stage and with guitarist John McFee often standing in front of him, blocking the view for some of the Treasure Island concertgoers.
The spotlights were focused on Doobie Brothers cofounders Tom Johnston and Patrick Simmons, who handled lead vocals, lead guitars and spokesman duties.
"It's so great to be back here on our 50ish anniversary tour," Simmons said of the 53-year-old Rock & Roll Hall of Fame group. But, after COVID, who's counting.
Johnston, 74, not only sounded amazingly just like he did in the band's 1970s heyday, but he looked pretty much the same, sporting, like Tom Selleck, a distinctive dark mustache and thatch of hair. The 73-year-old Simmons' voice was effective if diminished, and he still wore his salt-and-pepper hair down to the middle of his back.
McFee, a member for 42 years, distinguished himself on several string instruments, including slide guitar, pedal steel guitar and fiddle, as well as harmonica. Russo had many features on the saxophone, showing his versatility with smooth jazz, R&B and rock stylings.
The Doobies' vocal harmonies — which sometimes evoked Steely Dan, sometimes Poco — impressed. And the eight-man band — which played elements of rock, R&B, jazz, soul, bluegrass and folk — was tight and quick to find good grooves.
After seeming solid and efficient for the first hour (tunes from last year's "Liberte," their first studio album in seven years, seemed more lived in than at the State Fair), the Doobies hit their stride on the syncopated, New Orleans-flavored "World Gone Crazy," the title track of their 2010 album.
The players, especially Johnston and Simmons, transitioned from professional to passionate for the last hour of the 130-minute performance. They were on fire for a seven-minute version of "Long Train Runnin'," which segued into the hard-charging, good-time "China Grove." Mix in more 1970s favorites including the bluegrassy "Black Water," the terrific "Takin' It to the Streets" and the festive, feel-good finale "Listen to the Music" and the Doobie Brothers more than made up for last year's McDonald-less effort.