Review: Toto, Michael McDonald showcase stellar '70s chops at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater
It may be one of the heaviest burdens for a pop culture critic to bear. But I’m ready to let go of the weight and expose my soul to the world right here.
My name is Eric Deggans. And I’m a Toto fan.
Get the sneers out of the way now; the snide references to the lack of recent chart hits, their status as slick session players in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, and the suffocating visibility of VH1-style soft rock tunes like Africa and I’ll Be Over You.
None of that matters. Because if you’d joined the 1,716 faithful who saw the band’s Tuesday stop at Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater with Michael McDonald, you’d realize Toto remains one of rock’s tightest and sharpest rock bands, building a 35-plus-year history on an unexpected mix of melodic hits and genre-bending musical workouts.
That blend was showcased in the band’s very first tune, a mash up of the metal-ish anthem On the Run, an instrumental from their first album called Child’s Anthem and the soaring 1981 hit Goodbye Eleanor. The songs’ powerful riffs gave plenty of room for lead guitarist Steve Lukather to flash his amazing chops, guilded by a wall of vocals featuring singer Joe Williams and percolating drum parts courtesy of Nashville session veteran Shannon Forrest.
Over 35 years, Toto has seen its share of tragedy and lineup changes, reflected in the version of the band that came to Clearwater Tuesday.
Original drummer Jeff Porcaro died in 1991 of a heart attack, replaced by studio player extraordinaire Simon Phillips (Pete Townshend, The Who, Jeff Beck) who left the band early this year. Forrest is reportedly subbing for another powerhouse drummer, Keith Carlock, who can’t join Toto as Phillips’ replacement until he finishes work with Steely Dan, whom Porcaro recorded with in the ’70s. Confused yet?
On Tuesday, original bassist David Hungate appeared with the band, back again after departing in the early ’80s to build a career playing sessions in Nashville. He is the most recent in a string of ace musicians to fill the bass chair since his replacement, Jeff’s brother Mike Porcaro, fell ill with ALS (also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) a few years ago and stopped performing.
Regardless of its incarnations, Toto’s sound has always stood on a foundation of super-tight musicianship. Those chops were on ready display Tuesday, from the sleek groove of Hydra to the bombastic rocker White Sister and the funky hit Georgy Porgy, which featured a too-short showcase for the band’s soulful backup singers.
(Fun fact: Georgy Porgy got airplay on black radio in the late ’70s, back when stations would consider spinning tunes from artists like Toto and Joe Jackson if the groove was funky enough. Some of my friends back then even assumed Toto was a funk band.)
The songs offered up Tuesday were prime slabs of ’80s and ’90s rock, spiced with expert solos and fun twists for those of us old enough to see these songs as soundtracks from our lives. McDonald even ambled onstage to share vocal duties on I’ll Be Over You, highlighting a friendship with the band which reaches back to their days recording with Steely Dan 40 years ago.
McDonald closed the show with his own patented blend of R&B, gospel and pop rock flavors, playing on a stage stripped of the fancy backdrops and complex lighting gear that Toto deployed. Instead, he counted on a string of classic hits, a skin-tight backing band and that smoky, distinctive voice to keep the crowd energized for much of his set.
But that voice was hampered Tuesday by something you’d think an artist of McDonald’s experience would have conquered by now; microphone technique. Caught up in the groove, the silver-haired singer would whip his head away from the microphone while playing, causing his signature vocals to drop out every time he moved his head too far.
Still, McDonald offered his own sizzling set, packed with hits from his old band the Doobie Brothers (Here to Love You, Keeps You Runnin’, Minute By Minute, What a Fool Believes), superstar collaborations (Yah Mo B There, This Is It) and his own bluesy, gospelized solo work (Obsession Blues, Ain’t No Love).
Super talented bassist Tommy Sims, who is also an amazing songwriter and solo artist, got lots of time in the spotlight. He sang his Grammy-winning composition for Eric Clapton, Change the World, and offered a spot-on version of Stevie Wonder’s You Haven’t Done Nothin’ and Superstition for McDonald’s encores. These soulful grooves were aided by members of Toto, who joined McDonald’s group onstage to form, for a moment, one of the best Stevie Wonder cover bands on the planet.
This showstopping encore, filled with inspired jamming and jaw dropping performances, was a perfect summation of the night’s gig — a triumph of musicianship and talent over all, even trendiness and pop-culture cool.
It’s easy to dismiss artists like Toto and Michael McDonald as over the hill, cheesy or behind the times. But their values of sharp playing, tuneful pop and ace compositions transcended such stuff Tuesday, offering an up-close look on what made two of rock’s most interesting hitmakers truly special artists.
— Guest columnist Eric Deggans is the TV critic for NPR.