FOR THE RECORD
In the 1990s, at a time when there was a definite distinction between “local acts,” “regional acts,” and “national acts,” Michael On Fire occupied a unique place in American music culture when he became “a local act all over the Country.” Playing a circuit of gigs that spanned the entire geography of the United States, he traveled to towns hundreds and thousands of miles apart three and four times a year, where he became familiar, with and to, “the locals” in a way that removed the usual separation between “the person on the stage” and the people in the audience. Articles and interviews appeared regularly in the “local papers;” the local radio stations played his music, and he appeared on local TV shows. Other local bands and musicians played his songs at their gigs, just like they might do with more well-known national acts, only he and they played in the same venues. The scope and the sphere of his influence was national, but the perception and the relationships were more akin to a local band.
By this point in his career, he had already been writing and recording and gigging for over 20 years, all original music. Signed early on as an artist and songwriter to Groovesville Music, he cut his teeth working out of the famed United Sound Studios in Detroit with the great Don Davis, and through him with a stable of artists that included The Dells, the Dramatics and Johnnie Taylor; in the still-early days of Country Rock, he recorded at Muscle Shoals Sound in Alabama with The Swampers, playing his songs; Stephen Stills and Joe Vitale produced him in Los Angeles, where artists he respected came to his gigs to hear him play. And he played all the time, all over the place, in blues clubs and jazz clubs, and dive bars, and concert venues and festivals, as a headliner and as support for many of the top names in rock, blues, jazz, and roots music. He was, and had long been, a full-time musical artist, with thousands of gigs under his belt. He lived in Detroit, and Los Angeles, and Nashville, but mostly out of a van and motel rooms.
This was before the digital age; before social media and YouTube, before every band and musician had their own website, and before cell phone use by the general public. The world was moving into a new millennium with technology leading the way, but Michael was determinedly old school. While others were keeping in touch electronically, he was still pulling up to phone booths with a bag of quarters.
As the 20th Century drew to a close, his band mates and traveling companions “ran out of gas” and called it quits. Suddenly solo, Michael paused to envision the next phase of his life and journey as a musical artist. Perhaps in an attempt to have a more normal family life, he came off the road and out of the clubs for the first time in a dozen years. He made a solo album, one voice – one instrument, in Nashville. He wrote and recorded instrumental music that became among the most played music on The Weather Channel, and would remain so for many years. But it wasn’t enough – to keep his marriage and family from breaking apart, which left him with a broken heart; and that became a predominant feature moving forward.
When he came through on the other side of the personal and cultural changes, he found himself standing in a world that looked and felt and, in fact was, very different. In almost all of the towns, the venues he played had closed down, and the people who owned and booked and frequented them weren’t around anymore. The local newspapers and the writers who worked at them were disappearing at an alarming rate, and the local radio stations all got bought up by the media behemoth that stole the airwaves, fired the DJs and switched the formats to automated programming. Consolidation, homogenization and compartmentalization were the order of the day, and that which was “out of the box” was out of the loop. A new network of venues and promoters and broadcasters, and alliances and guilds and organizations arose, which operated according to a different paradigm. More than ever, image overshadowed essence and form eclipsed content.
As often happens during times of transition and relocation, some things can get lost or misplaced in the process, and in this case it was “the file” on Michael On Fire; the record of his feats and adventures and accomplishments. His data was not recognized by the new operating system, and what moderate assets he had managed to accrue were deemed to be no longer of value. While this is not a typical tale, neither is it entirely unfamiliar; cultural and technological changes often yield casualties of transition. That’s why the oral record is scattered with reports of lost legends and hidden treasures, and why when we discover them in our midst it is important to identify them in the lineage and if possible acknowledge, support and sustain them.
Many have asked, and I often wonder, how it could’ve happened that the dots didn’t get connected; how each of the towns remained discrete and isolated from each other. The answer lies in the unique phenomenon of being “local all over the Country.” Local media doesn’t affect or connect with other local media; it takes national media to do that. For an independent artist whose grass roots travel places him below the radar and the awareness of national attention, the way to get national media is to pay for it, and as Michael reveals here in his song “No One to Kill,” – “I’m not one of those who pay …” (and some would add, nor is he one to sell, as in “sell out.”)
Michael On Fire is no longer “a local act all over the Country;” now, he’s more like one of our mythic winds, like the Santa Ana, also sung about here, in that he blows in every now and then, shakes things up, and then moves on out. He has never stopped writing, recording, gigging or touring, and as his longtime fans will attest, he continues to get better and better.
From his beginnings as a songwriter and artist signed by the late-great Don Davis to Groovesville Music working out of Detroit’s famed United Sound Studios, to his earliest recordings with the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (“The Swampers”) at Muscle Shoals Sound, to his musical explorations with his avant garde group, Prismatic, as part of the thriving Detroit Jazz Artists scene at Cobb’s Corner, to his time spent in L.A. and Nashville, gigging constantly and making records with the likes of Stephen Stills, Joe Vitale, Phil Kenzie, and many other great producers and musicians, to his many years of non-stop grass-roots touring through every nook and cranny of the country, and right on through to his upcoming two-album set, which features the “California band” that has backed him live and on records for the past four years, Michael Onn Fire has been relentless in his commitment to creative expression and musical performance. He is that rare breed that has lived his entire adult life, uncompromisingly, as a full-time artist, playing all original music.
His music is not confined to, or defined by, any category or genre. As Alan Cackett of Maverick Magazine (UK) wrote, “This is honest, rootsy music by a veteran artist who makes music on his own terms regardless of current fads and fancies – we celebrate artists like that, especially when the music is of such uniformly high quality.”
In a recent radio interview, Michael said, “Every day is a challenge to maintain our humanity and our dreams. My job is to somehow gift the world with the courage it takes to follow one’s own heart and path; to play that magic chord in a way that I’ve never played it before, and somehow be of service to myself, my children, my family, my friends, my generation, and the people who truly need something beyond the obvious nonsense that we are all faced with on a daily basis.”
Michael on Fire
Michael on Fire, singer, songwriter, musician, and storyteller, is lauded by his fans and fellow musicians alike for his powerful lyrics and profoundly emotional performances.
“... one of the most powerful and personal performances I’ve seen. Michael On Fire lights a room and connects with something deep in the psyche in a way that makes you feel you have known the songs and ranged over the emotion of them for your whole life. His tunes are as though they were preordained in memory. Almost his entire play list clicked open a receptor that made it immediately recognizable, though I’d never heard his music before. Over the decades I’ve seen big acts, major stars, impressive tours,but there is something about Michael on Fire that connects like no other. He is singularly peerless.” - Tom Cochrun, Light Breezes [Cambria, CA.]
Listen: Cadillac Beach
He has toured relentlessly, constantly creating, performing and recording original music with an unswerving singularity of purpose, telling his truths in song and story.
“Michael on Fire has a sound and style that epitomizes all that is so good about the Americana genre. You’ll find blends of country, folk, blues and rock’n’roll, occasionally all in one song. This is honest, rootsy music by a veteran artist who makes music on his own terms regardless of current fads and fancies - we celebrate artists like that, especially when the music is of such a uniformly high quality.” – Maverick Magazine (U.K.)
“Out of the darkness and void of a decimated music industry comes a singer / songwriter that lights the fires of peace, love and empathy for a World that is desperate for positive energy. Michael on Fire rekindles the passion and light in an art-form that holds the heart, soul, and voice of the people. ” - Stewart Brennan, World United Music [Montreal, Canada]
In his song, “Make Me a Drum,” Michael sings: I will run like the wind / and I will fight like a bear / You can’t buy my heart and you don’t own the air. The verse goes a long way in characterizing his attitude and approach as a fiercely independent musical artist. His unique blend of creative resolve, defiance and non-conformity has led to a unique career path, away from the mainstream.
Listen: Make Me a Drum
“I’ve always been clear about who and what I am and what I do,” said Michael. “I’ve always been fully committed to music and to being a musician, and I’ve tried to follow the voice of my heart and the path of my soul.”
Listen: Chief Redbird's Violin
Listen: Cadillac Ranch
Here’s a sampling of the places he’s played:
The Dosey Doe Music Cafe (Conroe, TX)
The Dosey Doe - Big Barn (the Woodlands, TX)
The Ark (Ann Arbor Mi)
Sweetwater (Mill Valley, CA)
SOhO Music Club (Santa Barbara, CA)
The Bluebird Cafe (Nashville, TN)
The Bugle Boy (LaGrange, TX)
Canal Street Tavern (Dayton, OH)
The Soiled Dove (Denver, CO)
Tales from the Tavern (Santa Ynez, CA)
The Live Room (Palmers Green, UK)
McDowell Mountain Music Festival (Scottsdale, AZ)
Rockin’ The Tetons (Alta, WY)
Sweet Pea Music Festival (Bozeman, MT)
The Boulder Theater (Boulder Co)
The Paramount Theater (Denver, CO)
The State Theater (Kalamazoo, MI)
The Michigan Theater (Ann Arbor, MI)
Birmingham Theater (Birmingham, MI)
The Ventura Theater (Ventura, CA)
The Trinity House (Livonia, MI)
The Beat Kitchen (Chicago, IL)
The Mint (L.A., CA)
Eddie’s Attic (Decatur, GA)
Painted Sky Studio (Cambria and Harmony, CA)
Moonlight on the Mountain (Birmingham, AL)
Uncommon Ground (Chicago, IL)
The Empty Glass (Charleston, WV)
Ranch & Reata (Santa Ynez, CA)
KAFM Radio Room (Grand Junction, CO)
Poor David’s Pub (Dallas, TX)
Historic Elk Rapids Town Hall (Elk Rapids, MI)
The In & Out Gallery (Traverse City, MI)
The Stone (San Francisco, CA)
The Cabaret Metro (Chicago, IL)
The Kachina Lodge (Taos, NM)
The Lighthouse (Hermosa Beach, CA)
Steamboat (Austin, TX)
Herman’s Hideaway (Denver, CO)
The Strand (Redondo Beach, CA)
The Slippery Noodle (Indianapolis, IN)
The Back Room (Seattle, WA)
The Zephyr (Salt Lake City, UT)
The Mangy Moose (Jackson Hole, WY)
Club West (Santa Fe, NM)
Club Lingerie (Hollywood, CA)
Liberty Lunch (Austin, TX)
The Toledo Sports Arena (Toledo, OH)
Masonic Auditorium (Detroit, MI)
Ann Arbor Art Fair (Ann Arbor, MI)
Mill Avenue Fair (Tempe, AZ)
Park City Winterfest (Park City, UT)
Arizona State University
Univeristy of Utah
Salt Lake Community College
Michigan State University
and many, many more ...
“As the music industry dictates who and what is valid, the lifers, like Michael On Fire, keep finding new ways and new stages by which to express themselves.” - Stephen Brundage, The Herald-Palladium [St. Joseph, MI]
“Michael on Fire is so good you’ll be stuck trying to invent new adjectives to describe it all. He’ll make you laugh, cry, see God and tap your feet … all at once." – The Los Angeles Times
“Michael on Fire delivers an impressive, highly-melodic blend of country, folk and rock. The songs are memorable, and the musicianship extremely good.” – RELIX Magazine
"Michael on Fire is neither old nor young, but both – with the wisdom of age and the exuberance of youth." –The Freeport (Ill.) Journal Standard
"The music is unmistakably passionate, wedding Michael’s penchant for dust ‘n’ bones guitar arrangements with his classically-trained musical sensibilities. The result is a sound that is primal, raw and powerful. When I caught his live show last Sunday, his words seemed like gospel. He is an electrifying performer." – The (East Lansing) State News
"He’s a proper blue collar musician, a hard-working singer/songwriter as well as a gifted poet. Are we impressed? Very much so!! Mark my words, this is top-notch material, and definitely must-have if you’re into Springsteen, Mark Knopfler, Van Morrison, Dylan and the sound of classic Americana rock. Sheer class from opening to closing track. Highly recommended." - Urban “Wally” Wallstrom, Rock United (UK) (July 2011)
"Michael shares the rarified air of artists who can truly effect, and affect,emotional wellbeing through their art. The perfect confluence of loving message and captivating music." - Sean Dooley, Country Music Greats Radio Hour & rockgreats.com (Nashville, Tennessee)
"Michael on Fire is unabashedly all about “the people.” His songs, his actions, his attitude – they all reflect life’s experiences and the people who have them." – On Stage (Denver & Ft. Collins)
“This was one of those difficult to review shows, not because there were no highlights but because every song was a highlight.” – The Kalamazoo Gazette