By John T. Davis
Special to the American-Statesman
According to one sensibility, certain voices are immutably welded to their moment in time, never to transcend it. By that yardstick, the Beach Boys will be forever married to the sunny 1960s; the Doobie Brothers (with golden-toned vocalist Michael McDonald) evoke the tumult of Watergate and the bitter denouement of Vietnam. And Christopher Cross embodies the pinnacle of adult contemporary radio’s perfect pop production line, as much a product of the early 1980s as an episode of “Miami Vice.”
Alternatively, you could make the argument that some voices — through repetition, transgenerational affection and sheer prowess — become, in effect, timeless.
On Wednesday night at ACL Live, Cross, McDonald and the Beach Boys’ Mike Love (along with guitarist Eric Johnson) made a compelling case for the latter point of view.
The occasion was “Christopher Cross and Friends,” a special PBS taping produced by KLRU, which will yield a musical special and a DVD.
Hometown boy Cross has always retained a big reservoir of affection in Austin, though he seldom plays locally. So his appearance in front of a sold-out house, along with the chance to showcase his friends and mentors Love, McDonald and Johnson, had a special resonance to his fans.
Opening with a decades-spanning pair of tracks (“Got to Be a Better Way” from 2014’s “Secret Ladder” and “Never Be the Same” from his chart-topping 1979 debut), Cross combined deft guitar work with a crackerjack band. Throughout the evening he was abetted at various times by the “Barton Strings,” members of the Austin Symphony conducted by Peter Bay, and the Conspirare Youth Choir. (“Their grandparents are all big fans of mine,” Cross noted wryly.)
But it was the voices, echoes of a million radio hits and 45 singles past, that carried the evening. Whereas Love’s weathered voice (he turns 75 in March) tempered the Endless Summer vibe of “Good Vibrations” and “Kokomo,” and McDonald’s regal tone on “What A Fool Believes” and “Takin’ It to the Streets” has darkened and mellowed like port wine, Cross’ airy, high-tenor vocals seem almost eerily unaffected by the passage of time.
Cross never came close to repeating the massive success of his first album and the Oscar that came his way for co-writing and singing the theme to the movie “Arthur.” “Radio and tastes change and a lot of my records slipped under the water,” he noted without rancor.
But he’s never stopped making music, and his love for his craft was evident at every turn. And although the encore number, John Lennon’s “Imagine” with all hands on deck, might have been the emotional climax of the evening, it was the effervescent Wall of Sound blitz — strings cranking, choir piping, sax and guitars wailing — of Cross’ breakout hit “Ride Like the Wind” that was the musical high point for this Reviewer Of A Certain Age. You could maybe call it dated. But from my seat, it sounded timeless.