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MUSIC / MICHAEL ON FIRE : Other Road Warriors : Michael On Fire carves out a niche by performing to beat of its own drummer. The band plays in Santa Barbara on Friday.

April 08, 1993|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

He used to be as readily available as pizza coupons in the mailbox, but now Michael On Fire is sort of like a musical Halley's Comet. He used to play around here every week; now he comes around once a year or so. Michael On Fire will be stopping the Van On Fire at the Creek Side Inn in Santa Barbara for a Friday night show just a few steps from the horseshoe pits and the creek itself.

Imagine if Detroit-born MOF played for his beloved (who now stink like the Lakers) Pistons; his name on his back would read "ON FIRE." It's his real name, given by a Sioux medicine man. The sign on the door of House On Fire would say "BACK IN FIVE MONTHS." MOF used to live in the Valley but now lives in Nashville; his real ZIP code, though, is the open road. The band's 300-plus gigs puts them high on the workaholic scale along with all those old blues guys who can't quit driving, either. They get Christmas cards from Tom Bodette every week. (FYI: He's the Motel 6 guy--we'll leave the light on for ya.)

This current road trip has been going on for about two years, gaining the band a fanatical following throughout the Midwest and all the small towns no one has ever heard of. Thus, MOF is another of an increasing number of bands who live long and prosper outside the musical mainstream and without the backing of a label.

Most bands have about 20 songs--and, maybe, a couple of good ones. MOF is one of the few acts that could play longer than the Grateful Dead and the Boston Pops--he has 1,200 original songs. "Intelligence Ain't What It Used to Be" could be the National Anthem. In 1990, the band put out a CD, "Comanche Moon," and "Keepers of the Flame" came out last year. They get a lot of airplay--none of it around here.

With a voice as big as lottery dreams, MOF writes intelligent songs about important stuff. He plays acoustic guitar while world-class guitarist Ced Curtis does the electric rock 'n' roll thing, and one-name, no-sticks drummer Tobias hits stuff. Band manager Ron Colone is the fourth guy in the van.

A few years ago, Texas Music Hall of Famer Stevie Ray Davis was the guitar dude, then Curtis joined and, for a few magic months, MOF had two of the best guitarists around. Davis has his own band in Alabama these days, and MOF remains a trio.

Recently, MOF (Miguel del Fuego for his Spanish-speaking fans) spoke from a motel in the Middle of Nowhere, Oklahoma, heading west one more time.

On your current endless tour, are you guys really doing 300 dates a year?

Yeah, we've been everywhere--north, south, east and west--everywhere except Orange County. I feel like one of those old black guys in the '40s traveling through the South.

Yeah, but you have long hair--don't the rednecks hate that?

Naw, the rednecks love me because I'm a redneck.

How many miles are on the Van On Fire?

About 350,000.

What got you burned out on Southern California?

Basically, we're musicians and we want to play, and in Southern California, the venues were getting filled up. There's so many bands-- everyone wants to showcase, but for 350 days in a row? We exhausted every possible venue in Southern California. We had to do it this way because we didn't have a record company to count on. We had to make it happen ourselves. When we left, we had to establish ourselves. Sometimes we'd play and nobody would be there but the bartender. But next time we played, the place would be jammed. We did that for a year and a half. Now we have a following. Right now, our press kit is the size of a phone book and we've played to well over a million people.

What's the largest crowd you've played for?

We played for 23,000 one time in Bozeman, Mont. We've played for from 2 to 10,000 people about 25 times.

Who goes?

It's an interesting mixture. We get homeless derelict teen-agers, college professors, Hell's Angels, karate instructors, dope dealers, politicians, railroad conductors and strippers. Our following is very, very loyal. Wherever we go, we get invited to stay at people's houses. We used to do that, but it got too weird. When you do that, all of a sudden, you're on their schedule and go with their flow. They expect you to be "on" all the time, and they don't want to see you doing real stuff, like trimming your toenails. It's the image, I guess.

Why do you connect so well with the audience?

They can relate to us because we kinda look at them eye-to-eye. They can come up and talk to us. They see us working real hard--changing a tire, handling our own equipment. It's almost like everyone wants us to make it because we're like the underdogs.

So you guys are like these road dogs with no roots anywhere. What's that like?

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