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NIGHT LIFE

Michael On Fire Lives Up to Name When Writing and Singing

March 29, 1990|BILL LOCEY

You know you've made The Big Time when you no longer need a last name. Who can forget Cleopatra, Elvis, Madonna, Bogie, Zsa Zsa, The Duke, God, Sabu, Goofy? Know what I mean? Electric folk singer Michael on Fire is another example of a guy with no surname. All he needs now is half of Milli Vanilli's money.

Michael On Fire, which is the singer's legal name, lives in the San Fernando Valley by way of Detroit and loves the Lakers, except when they play the Pistons. He says that a Sioux Indian medicine man gave him his name.

When he's not performing, MOF is writing. And writing. And writing. He has between 1,200 and a zillion songs--this guy could play longer than the Grateful Dead.

"Some people water their plants every day; I write. Not every song is a gem, but there's usually a line or two worth saving for another song--I've got quite a catalogue. The more you do something, the better you get at it. I'm a lifer. This is what I do. I feel like I've got five or six good albums in me right now. When I play, each set is longer than an album."

Michael On Fire has this booming, sort of raspy voice that's as big as all outdoors--the sort of voice everyone on MTV wishes were his. He's got this wild mane of hair, without mousse, and he doesn't look like one of those cheerleaders from high school. He's commercial-sounding and slicker than the trail of a 50-foot slug, not plastic and phony but convincing and real. Better yet, he never asks the obvious, "How's it goin', Ven-ch-ura?"

And the singer is so relentlessly friendly and upbeat that he could sell a raincoat to a cactus. When he's not on stage, MOF chats with people in the audience. He must be a direct descendant of Mr. Rogers and Captain Kangaroo.

MOF writes these reflective ballads that are at once sad and funny about the Big Issues--love, the homeless, the environment, offshore drilling, ERA, American Indians.

Usually accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, MOF has this tight backup band that just got tighter--like Roseanne Barr in a wet suit . . . in Bakersfield . . . in August. Stevie Ray Davis recently joined MOF. He's a guitarist who's in the Texas Music Hall of Fame where he has joined the likes of Jimmy Vaughan and Stevie Ray Vaughan. MOF's folk rock songs now have a definite rockin' blues edge. Robbie Drum is the sax player and Tobias is the one-named percussionist.

When he's not writing, Michael On Fire is Michael on tour. He's played in every state except Alaska and Hawaii and has opened for acts such as Stephen Stills, Peter Tosh, Jimmy Cliff, Bob Seger, Jean Luc Ponty and the Art Ensemble of Chicago.

"My strangest gig was my first-ever gig. It was in east Detroit, and I walked into this place with my guitar and they told me I had to sing from on top of the bar. So I'm up there doing 'Mr. Tambourine Man' when all of a sudden on each side of me was a bona fide stripper. Man, it got real hard to remember the lyrics."

"I average about five gigs per week--I'm doing 24 shows in April. But I don't do those industry hangout gigs. I'm not into competition and that's not how I care to participate. Most places I play don't have cover charges, except in January when I played Aspen and it cost forty bucks to get in and a beer cost seven bucks. Industry people tell me I'm overexposing myself, but hey, this is my job . . ."

It must be working too. MOF has a mailing list of more than 2,500 plus a tape, "Pre-Dawn Chronicles." The tape is available at his gigs and contains some of his best work--"Lucifer's Returned To Heaven," "Oh Picasso" and "Ride On Into Midnight." The tape is as popular as a bulletproof building in Beirut--3,000 units sold. A new tape is in the works.

MOF's influences are diverse. He cites Dion, Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix, Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Albert King, Fats Domino and Fleetwood Mac. About the only cover he ever does is an old Fleetwood Mac song--Peter Green's "Woman's Got The Blues"--from Fleetwood's blues guitar band days before Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie joined the group.

Michael on Fire will be at the Red Cove in Ventura on Sunday, at Charlie's in Ventura every Monday in April and at the Hungry Hunter in Thousand Oaks every Thursday, Friday and Saturday in April.

WHERE TO GO FRIDAY

The Lions I's (Charlie's Seaside Cafe, 362 California St., Ventura, 648-6688) Locals do original rockin' reggae that's irresistible to every foot within a 12-block radius.

SATURDAY

Eric Johnson (Ventura Theatre, 26 S. Chestnut St., Ventura, 648-1936) The well-known guitar virtuoso is scheduled to make his local debut.

SUNDAY

Michael On Fire (Red Cove, 1809 E. Main St., Ventura, 643-1101) He's got a voice as big as all outdoors, a zillion songs, a cool name and he performs with Texas Hall of Fame guitarist Stevie Ray Davis to boot. (

Also, Mondays at Charlie's through April, and Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays through April at the Hungry Hunter in Thousand Oaks, 847 N. Moorpark Road, 497-3925).

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