Up in the Air takin’ it to the stage

Michael McDonald shares Ritz stage with TU vocal group

PHOTOS BY MIMI LANGE JOHNSTON Members of Tiffin University’s a cappella vocal group Up in the Air pose with singer-songwriter Michael McDonald (center) before his performance Wednesday at The Ritz Theatre. Also pictured is director Brad Rees, TU’s executive director of arts programs.

There are few musicians to whom the term “living legend” applies. Members of this exclusive club have written, recorded and performed chart-topping songs over the course of multiple decades, won the music industry’s top awards, influenced popular culture and inspired legions of younger musicians to follow in their footsteps.

Five-time Grammy winner Michael McDonald is such a musician. With the quintessential husky-voice of blue-eyed soul, a genre that encompasses elements of R&B, Motown, pop, rock, blues, and jazz, McDonald started his career nearly five decades ago as a singer and keyboard player with Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Steely Dan.

From 1975-82, while continuing to work with Steely Dan, he became a member of the Doobie Brothers, racking up hits like “What a Fool Believes” and “Takin’ it to the Streets.” For the past 35 years, he has focused on a solo career, generating more hits, such as “I Keep Forgettin'” and “Ya Mo B There.”

McDonald’s voice is unmistakable and his influence on American popular music is undeniable.

His music can be heard on countless movie soundtracks and commercials. He has collaborated with other legendary artists like Aretha Franklin, Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles, Kenny Loggins, Patti LaBelle and Barbra Streisand.

PHOTO BY MIMI LANGE JOHNSTON Up in the Air perform Wednesday evening before Michael McDonald takes the stage.

As a musician myself, I grew up listening to Michael McDonald’s music. Living in Nashville for the past two decades, I had the privilege of playing, singing, leading worship and recording with him. I also have had the blessing of being his friend for the past 20 years, and can say without reservation that he is the kindest, most gracious and generous musician I have ever known.

So, I was thrilled to find that Michael would be performing at The Ritz Theatre Wednesday, just months after I moved back to Tiffin. Having grown up here, I couldn’t wait to tell him about this wonderful community.

Over the past two decades as a professional musician and director of a performing and visual arts academy, whose students included young artists like Miley Cyrus, Kesha, Taylor Swift and members of the rock group Paramore, I’ve become somewhat known for finding and developing up-and-coming talent. When appropriate, I’ve introduced gifted, young musicians and actors to influential people, who have provided them with professional opportunities and helped launch their careers. I don’t make recommendations lightly or often, and until recently, never had approached Michael to request his assistance in this way.

However, I recently attended the Tiffin University Christmas Concert at The Ritz Theatre, and was very impressed with the wealth of talent being developed at TU. I especially was taken with the a cappella vocal group Up in the Air, directed by TU’s Executive Director of Arts Programs Brad Rees. Hearing them, I knew I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to introduce them to Michael, whose Christmas tour brought him to The Ritz.

I hoped he might find time to give them a private audience before the show or visit them at TU. However, once he heard their story (and my poorly-recorded phone video of their Christmas performance), he went a step further, inviting them to open his concert at The Ritz. As simple as that may seem, even for an established artist this is a bit of an ordeal, requiring many phone calls, emails and much logistical planning. That he would take the time to make it happen in the midst of a grueling 20-city tour speaks volumes about the generous, supportive man he is.

PHOTO By Ellen Lange Above, the marquee of The Ritz Theatre Wednesday evening.

When I arrived at the theatre late Wednesday afternoon, I found Michael sitting in an audience seat, quietly listening to Up in the Air’s sound-check. We had arranged to visit before the show, so we headed backstage to catch up and talk about his new project, “Season of Peace,” which combines songs from two previous Christmas albums, as well as new tracks recorded over the past couple of years.

He talked about what he liked about touring over the Christmas season versus summer, saying, “It’s nice to have a chance to touch base with our audience during the holidays. We enjoy being able to give them something a little different and special with the Christmas songs, a lot of which we do semi-acoustically. It’s more personal. Also, during Christmas we generally play venues in smaller towns, which is nice for us and different from the major cities that our summer touring season is based around.”

When asked about his reaction to hearing Up in the Air, he replied, “I think they’re phenomenal. It’s great to see young people who are talented in such a sophisticated way. They work with some pretty complex harmonic arrangements, and they do it really well. They’re obviously very serious.”

I described how Rees had built the TU music program from the ground up over the past 20-plus years, and how the university had built the Performing Arts Lab last year. “Brad is really on it,” he said. “He certainly knows his way around audio and the requirements for his group. A lot of choir directors don’t — it’s not their expertise — but he knows the production value, what’s important for them to be able to hear, and how best to put what they do in a good light. And his arrangements are really good.”

Minutes before the show began, the eight TU students who comprise Up in the Air stood backstage, a little nervous but also excited and grateful for the opportunity they had been given. They performed two songs, both a cappella; the packed house at The Ritz responded with enthusiastic applause and cheers.

PHOTO BY MIMI LANGE JOHNSTON Up in the Air member Quinn Gray (left) poses for a photo with Michael McDonald after getting his guitar signed by the singer Wednesday.

After their performance, Michael McDonald took the stage, giving well-deserved shout-outs to Up in the Air, Rees, The Ritz and the local production crew, which had worked with Michael’s road crew to provide sound and lighting for the concert. (They were outstanding, by the way. Ritz Theatre Executive Director Michael Strong and his team do an absolutely first-rate job of bringing in world-class talent and providing them with world-class technical and production support.)

Then, the stage lights dimmed and a spotlight came up on Michael, who opened the show with an acoustic version of “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” Over the next two hours, his rapt audience listened and cheered as they were treated to a joyous musical celebration of Christmas, as well as several of Michael’s signature hits. The band, all top Nashville session and touring musicians and singers, seamlessly shifted between all-out, wall-of-sound funk/R&B to delicate acoustic arrangements. They were joined by Rameco Lattimore and TWC, a gospel choir from Cincinnati, on a few especially rousing numbers.

It was a spectacular show, the audience clearly aware and appreciative of being in the presence of true greatness. And I couldn’t help but marvel at what a remarkable thing I had witnessed as the talented young members of Up in the Air collaborated with this legendary singer, musician and songwriter, right here in Tiffin. It made me happy to have had a small part in making it happen. But most of all, it made me proud to be here in this community, looking to a future of limitless possibilities and excited to be part of it all.

Mimi Lange Johnston is a writer, musician, and consultant who grew up in Tiffin and recently returned after three decades in Chicago and Nashville. Her career spans work in music, theater, advertising, concert and venue development, marketing and promotion, and arts education and administration. She can be reached at mimiljohnston@gmail.com.