Concert Reviews
1980 - 2012

Singers Bring Divergent Styles To Fair
Minnesota State Fair Grandstand - August 21, 1980
Michael Anthony, Minneapolis Tribune
If there are Pronto pups being consumed by the hundreds, fireworks in the sky as well as grown men walking around wearing 50-gallon hats, this must be the Minnesota State Fair.

If country singer Lacy J. Dalton and balladeer Michael Johnson are performing onstage and Bob Potter is the MC, this must be opening night at the State Fair grandstand.

The grandstand is not an easy place for a performer to play, the front row of seats being at least 30 feet from the edge of the stage. And for those with general admission tickets seated way over on either side of the grandstand, what's happening onstage is more a rumor than hard, cold fact.

Still, it's not worse, in terms of distance, than most seats for an arena concert. And in the case of the grandstand show Thursday night, attended by 2,547 people, the supercharged bravura style of Lacy Dalton and the much quieter, living room-ambience that Michael Johnson creates - neither performer had trouble breaching the distance to the audience.

Actually, portions of Johnson's 75-minute set, which closed the evening and brought on the nightly fireworks display, weren't all that quiet. For several numbers he was accompanied by a six-piece band that included, among others, guitarist Lonnie Knight, bassist Bill Peterson, pianist Bill Barber and drummer Bill Berg. While it is true that some wag suggested the band ought to be called The Inflations (too many Bills), it also is true that these are some of the best local musicians available. They did a nice job playing arrangements that they had learned in some cases, in short order.

The solo spot, where Johnson simply accompanied himself on acoustic guitar and sang the sometimes sad, sometimes wry ballads that he favors, seemed the more satisfying portion of the set, nonetheless, though that may simply be habit on the part of a listener so accustomed to experiencing Johnson as a solo performer. Whether the subtle nuances of Johnson's singing style are aided or diminished when placed in a rock context is another question, a question answered perhaps by the singer's new album on EMI, which according to reports, utilizes a more or less rock backing.

He seemed comfortable with such Thursday night, delivering, among other numbers, a rousing version of the rock tune "Stay With It" as a finale, while among the acoustic tunes there were winning renditions of "Bluer Than Blue" and Randy Newman's black-humored "Political Science."

Thank you, Michael . . . .
Bemidji High School Auditorium - January 23, 1981
Christine Peterson, Features Editor, Northern Student
He walked onto the stage, sat on a stool, and without a word to the audience, began to play his guitar. After singing his first song, the Bemidji High School auditorium's walls echoed with wild cheering from the audience. Ironically, Michael Johnson's first spoken words at Friday evening's concert were "thank you. " No , Michael, it's the other way around—thank you!

Throughout the 90 minute performace, Johnson kept the audience entertained with his slection of songs franging from bittersweet ballads to good time folk tunes. Another personal dimension to the concert were Johnson's witty ad humorous comments interspersed between his songs.

Johnson sang many of his hit tunes, including "Circle of Fifths," "There Is a Breeze," and by audience request, "25 Words."

Laugher filled the air when Johnson treated the crowd with his "Wonderful World of Sex," and "Drop the Big One Now." He then moved to play his famous Top 40 hit, "Bluer Than Blue," which warmed the audience's heart and made his top notch performance complete.

As Johnson neared the end of his performance, the crowd begged for more, and they got it. He took onto the stage for a final encore, spurred on by the overwhelming response from the audience. After his final song for the evening, many fans cheered and screamecd for several minutes after Johnson had left the stage. When interviewed offstage, Johnson is the same person he portrays when performing—down-to-earth, witty, and friendly. Wearing his faded blue jeans, sweatshirt and hiking boots, Johnson revealed his feelings about the many aspects of his life as a performer.

When Johnson is on the road, there are many different sides of performing which he values but, for him, people are the main factor behind a successful or unsuccessful road trip. "You value instant friendships—because in three or four hours, I meet people that I just wouldn't get the chance to meet," Johnson said. "Usually I don't remember names and stuff the next time around, but if you need some help and somebody you don't know helps you, 'thank you' really helps mean something. But if you need some help and somebody you don't know doesn't help you, 'to hell with you' really means something. Everything is increased in value when you're dealing with people."

Before going out to perform in front of an audience, Johnson, like every other star, has his own way of psyching himself up for the performance. "I usually warm-up unti I really want to play and then I quit. It's like being my own opening act. I don't practice scales or anything."

There are many acts when Johnson gets stage fright. "The hardest thing to do is to get on stage when you don't want to get on stage," Johnson admitted. "It's frustrating—putting all the things together with the show, and when it doesn't happen right, and everything's the 'before-show nightmare,' it's not worth it sometimes."

Judging from Johnson's tell-tale happiness, a person can see that performing is worth it for him. He admits he wouldn't have it any other way. "I've said sometimes I really wish I had a 9-5 job, but I know if I did, I'd really envy what I do now."

In between concert performances, Johnson escapes at home. What does he do in his spare time? "Well, right now I'm paneling trhe downstairs bathroom," Johnson laughed. He enjoys his solitude in his Minnetonka home, and spends his free time by playing with nine-month-old baby boy, Stan, and his dog. Occasionally he throws a frisbee around and admits to watching some TV. Most of his songwriting is done at home.

When dealing with public recognition, Johnson has no complaints. He is not mobbed by screaming fans yet. But Johnson does enjoy recognition—he feels flattered and honored by the public's questions. When asked if he gets hassled by the public, Johnson replied, "No, it's kind of nice. I'm not Billy Joel. I'm not that rich and famous. But they do recognize me at Ridgedale in Minneapolis."

Among other stars, Johnson has performed with singer Anne Murray, and rock bands Spiro Gyra and Blood, Sweat, and Tears. He is currently under the management of a new producer, Steve Buckingham, who also produces Melissa Manchester and Dionne Warwick's music. Johnson is working on his third album which he hopes will contain many songs he has written.

To improve his performance in the future, Johnson would like to write more of his own music and he also wants to be a freer performer on stage. He doesn't have grandiose goals the way many performers do, such as fame ahd fortune. Johnson looks at his performing future realistically. "I certainly don't put myself on a parallel with Hemingway but he said that a writer should always be a little bit tired, a little bit cold, a little bit hungry, and la little bit poor—because everything mean more."

Despite small crowd, Johnson's music and humor delight students
The University of Tennessee-Chattanooga, After Dark Coffeehouse - November 19, 1981pm
Julie Johnston, The University Echo - December 4, 1981
Michael Johnson's concert Thursday night brought back a lot of memories for me. When he walked on stage with his guitar and started to play, it took me back to the first pop concert I went to — Harry Chapin playing solo.

Michael Johnson is a man to be admired. Sure, he's a great singer (his hits include the ever-popular "Bluer than Blue" "and "This Night Won't Last Forever") and sure, he's a great guitarist. He's even an outstanding performer and comedian, But on a rainy Thursday evening on November 19, before a small but enthusiastic crowd, Michael Johnson showed that, above all, he's a showman.

Michael Johnson flew to UTC from Grand Forks, North Dakota, to appear in the opening of the newly-formed After Dark Coffeehouse. Michael Johnson flew across the country ("from bone dry cold to feeling like a french fry") to appear before an audience of slightly over 30 people. (If you weren't there, shame on you.) To the enthusiastic applause greeting him on the stage, Johnson said, "You're small but you're mighty. " Fortunately, the guy's got a good sense of humor. Despite the small crowd, nobody went away disappointed — not even Johnson, who promised in his closing remarks, "I'll play for you anytime you like.

Sponsored by the Association for Campus Entertainment (ACE) and the SGA Entertainment Committee, the After Dark Coffeehouse, located in the main hall of the cafeteria, is to be commended for providing the comfortable, intimate surroundings that so suitably complemented the personal, easy-listening music of Michael Johnson. Candlelight, red checkered table cloths, waiters, waitresses and a modest menu of various coffees, teas, cookies and pastries were all brought together to make for a relaxing atmosphere in which to enjoy the delightful performance of Michael Johnson. (But someone should tell the folks in the cafeteria that their clanging pans just don't compete with a good guitar.)

Singer-guitarist Michael Johnson describes his career as "a series of raids on small towns at night."

Johnson entertained his audience with a broad repertoire of blues, jazz, love songs and humorous bits including a parody of country music. Country music writers, claims Johnson, are "some of the best and worst songwriters in the history of the world."

Johnson went on to justify his statement with his delightful performance of a honky-tonk tune that went something like: "If you think you've reached the bottom, just look down.. If you think I'm gonna sing, you're right... Maybe one of these days I'll find a garbage can big enough to throw myself away...

Johnson further delighted his audience with his hilarious — if somewhat off — beat reasoning and logic:

*"I spend a lot of time making fun of the Top 50. Anything that pleases millions of people really ought to be looked at."

*Johnson describes his career as "a series of raids on small towns at night."

*"I'm going to do one more song and then take a short break — because that's what Neil Diamond does."

*Johnson's revision of a typical love affair: "Boy meets girl. Boy and girl fall in love. Boy leaves girl. Girl kills boy."

*He recalls how one day, his father took him aside and warned him that the entertainment industry would mean "hanging around in bars and seedy places until dawn, and hanging around with loose women and married women." Concludes Johnson, "It was then that I decided that this was what I really wanted to do."

*"All newborn children look like Edward G Robinson, " Johnson believes, although he says he really likes children. "They're really short — and they do things that you and I go to jail for. Children have been known to say: "I feed the pigeons to the flag..." and "And the shepherds washed their socks by night..."

Johnson Plays a Hopelessly Romantic Concert
Iowa State University, Ames IA, Fisher Theater - February 4, 1982 - 7:00pm
by Ralph Hanson, Arts & Entertainment Editor, Iowa State Daily
Staff Photo by Amir Rakha

Michael Johnson's concert Thursday night brought back a lot of memories for me. When he walked on stage with his guitar and started to play, it took me back to the first pop concert I went to — Harry Chapin playing solo.

Not that the music was the same. Johnson is a far more accomplished musician than Chapin ever was. But Johnson brought that same easygoing feeling to the stage. He talked with (not to) the audience, solicited requests and told stories about his kid. It was the personalization brought by a man who is doing exactly what he wants to do. In his opening song, Johnson declared, "It's my job to be better than the rest." He was.

Johnson has had a few songs on the radio, the most notable of which is his hit "Bluer Than Blue," but I doubt that he is destined to become a big star. At least I hope not. Johnson's rich voice, fine guitar picking and rapport with the audience would be lost in a large hall.

While he has a fine, rich voice, his greatest strength as a musician lies in his guitar playing. Unlike most pop, folk, and jazz musicians, Johnson plays a nylon stringed classical guitar. It allows him to do far more intricate finger picking than he could do on a steel-stringed instrument.

Johnson spent a year in Spain studying classical guitar at the Conservatory of Liceo in Barcelona. This classical technique showed up repeatedly during his introduction and instrumental breaks.

It's futile to try and put Johnson's music into any neat category., with the possible exception of "good." He played melodies with elements of pop, jazz, country, and the blues. He even included a piece from the classical repertoire, "Study in E Minor," by Villa-Lobos.

In between the songs, Johnson told stories about touring and his family. He recently toured the Phillippines and was alarmed when his hotel room in Manilla began to shake. His fears were not reduced when a bell boy told him, "It's an earthquake, don't worry."

"It was an earth-shaking experience," Johnson said.

One of the funniest moments of the evening came when he asked, "How many of you people like listening to country western music on the radio?" When the applause was louder than he expected, he continued, "Well, you're going to hate this next song." He proceeded to play a parody of country western juke box weepers that proclaimed:

Someday I'll find a garbage can big enough and then I'll throw myself away.

There was also a bit of dark satire in the show. This was most evident in the Randy Newman tune, "Let's Drop the Big One Now." Johnson said he used to think the song was a comedy, but that he wasn't sure that it still was.

It becomes obvious as you listen to his music that Johnson is a hopeless romantic. But his songs about love and romance are much more than the standard "Ooooh, baby, baby."

He introduced "I Can't Get to You From Here" as an adult love song. It's about grown up love, when a man with a family gets a call from an old lover.

Johnson played without the benefit (or in this case, hindrance) of a band. He certainly didn't need one. His solo rendition of "Bluer Than Blue" was a little slower, a little sadder, and more than a little bit better than the version he recorded as a single.

He took several requests from the audience, which seemed as familiar with his early material (much of which was recorded on the obscure Sanskrit label) as with the stuff he has recorded on his big name (EMI) label. The one request he wasn't able to honor was to "Play every song from every album."

In spite of the fact that he had to play another show at 9:30, Johnson played a two-hour concert with only a short break.

While Johnson couldn't play everything, he did manage to touch base with his full range of material styles. Whether he was playing with the romance of "I'll Always Love You" or with the silliness of "The Wonderful World of Sex," he was always entertaining.

The concert was not spectacular, but it did make for a pleasant evening of music, which after all, is what a concert is all about.

Michael Johnson Charms SU Audience
Festival Hall, ND St U - Fargo, ND - February 26, 1982
Murray Wolf, Spectrum
A half dozen young people formed a smiling semi-circle around folk/pop musician Michael Johnson backstage at Festival Hall after his Feb. 26 performance.

The fans, all area college students, sought autographs, conversation or perhaps just a handshake from the singer/guitarist who had entertained them for the past 90 minutes.

Johnson, nursing a cold that had made it difficult to sing, smilingly shook the hands, signed the scraps of paper and gently rebuffed his admirers' praise.

"What a good audience to have a bad voice for," he said with a wry grin.

Looking smaller of stature and older than his publicity posters and album covers would have us believe, Johnson bore the wrinkles and baggy eyes a life of musical one-nighters can bring. Yet he good naturedly fielded every question and listened to every tired bit of small-talk as if he was hearing the words for the first time.

Earlier that evening, Johnson had begun the concert with "Old Fashioned Love." He held the audience rapt until he ended his first set with a version of "Here Comes The Sun" that made amateur guitarists in the audience shake their heads in awe.

Clad in worn denim blue jeans and playing solo from an almost bare stage, Johnson pumped as many one-liners as songs through his home-built loud speakers.

Of the cavernous Festival Hall, Johnson commented, "Did you know this used to be a horse barn?" Referring to his cold, he cracked, "I have to get better before I can die." Johnson even took a shot at singer Barry Manilow, suggesting that the popular singer/songwriter change the title of one of his tunes to "I Write the Songs That Make the Whole World Pewk."

But Johnson's boyish charms made it hard for even the most fervent Manilow fan to be offended by his irreverent humor.

After a short break, Johnson followed up his first set with 11 more tunes, starting the second set with his first big hit, "Bluer Than Blue."

After a rollicking version of "The Wonderful World of Sex" Johnson commented, "It's hard to follow that song with anything. Maybe a cigarette . . ."

Then Johnson launched into a group of "almost country" songs, mixed with liberal portions of his off-the-wall humor.

Introducing "I Can't Get to You From Here" as "bummer music," Johnson went on to take tongue-in-cheek shots at the melancholy nature of most country and western tunes. He called it "beer tops and tear drops" music, and said most of the song titles sounded like "If You Think You've Reached the Bottom, Just Look Down."

When the audience wasn't laughing, it was basking in the warm glow of Johnson's pleasing singing and playing.

After the country tunes, Johnson sang and picked his way through another four songs, wrapping things up with the comment, "I love what I do and I'll come back anytime you want - and I promise I'll be in better voice."

Judging from the crowd's response, they liked Johnson's voice just fine even with his cold.

When he returned for the inevitable encore, Johnson seized advantage of trouble with the light crew, quipping, "This is kind of homey. I feel like I'm inside your fireplace right now."

Backstage, he explained his reasons for his frequent performances for college crowds.

"I like small rooms and I like college people because they really know how to have fun," Johnson commented. "Colleges are probably two-thirds of the work I do."

Johnson must like his work, considering the staggering amount of touring he does.

"The most (shows) I've ever done is 191 in one year," Johnson said. "That's too many."

"Now I like to do about 100 a year. Maybe that's too many too!"

He travels with his wife, a one-woman road crew named Sally, and his young son, Stan.

Over the years, Johnson said his touring has given him the chance to work with such diverse acts as Anne Murray, Michael Murphy, Doc Severinsen and George Carlin.

There have been plenty of ups and downs on the road. As a scared 19-year-old, Johnson played an Irish folk song for 105,000 people at Chicago's Soldier Field during a music festival. He said that was the biggest crowd he ever played for.

"The smallest is (pause) nobody!" Johnson said, shaking his head at the memory. It turns out he played at a small club in Chicago when he was first starting out and the owner made him start his act right on schedule even if no customers were in the place.

Though the past may have been tough on Johnson at times, but now success seems to have made its mark on both his private life and his career. Johnson seems delighted with his two-and-a-half year-old marriage and his little boy.

At the same time his musical career seems well established. Johnson's albums are good sellers, he plays to loyal fans across the United States and abroad and he has co-written songs with such music "bigs" as Michael McDonald of the Doobie Brothers and classical guitarist Leo Kottke.

But we may soon see Johnson on the silver screen as well. He has contracted with CBS to do some movie soundtrack work and he is also trying to break into motion picture acting.

"I just don't know if I'm any good at it," Johnson said, adding earnestly, "and if I'm not any good at it, I'm not going to do it."

If Johnson can manage the same combination of talent, luck and hard work with acting that he has captured in his music, it's a good bet Johnson might just move on and master the movies as well.

Music Review
Mosque Auditorium - Richmond, VA - February 22, 1987
Joe Sokohl, Richmond Times-Dispatch
Something refreshing appeared before Twitty's show in the sets by Dan Seals and Michael Johnson.

Johnson should get the Most Courageous Artist Award of the evening, for he had to face the crowd primed for Twitty . . . alone. Armed only with a nylon string guitar (which he referred to as "the band"), Johnson won the audience over to his folk-oriented ballads such as "Give Me Wings" and his 1978 hit, "Bluer Than Blue."

His wit, his guitar playing and especially his singing captured the attention of the audience. His songs come from the heart, not from the tear duct.

Both Seals and Johnson worked hard to gain the respect of the Mosque audience. They both deserve that respect.

Michael Johnson delivers bland but pleasing show
Orchestra Hall - Mpls, MN - December 26, 1991
Dan Heilman, Minneapolis Tribune
As was once said of Bruce Springsteen and rock critics, if Michael Johnson didn't exist, Minnesotans would have had to invent him.

Johnson, a Colorado native who lived in Minnesota from 1970 to 1987, personifies the genteel qualities of Minnesota-nice so completely that his annual in-concert visits have become a local holiday tradition on a par with the Guthrie Theater's production of "A Christmas Carol."

Handsome, engaging and eminently easy to take, Johnson is as pleasingly plain as his very name, a quality his fans seem to place at a premium.

As the well-heeled near-capacity crowd at his ninth annual post-Christmas show at Orchestra Hall proved Thursday night, the 45-year-old performer will have a receptive audience in this area for years to come.

Johnson's two-hour-plus show (divided by an intermission) focused on the latter of his two decades as a recording artist, spotlighting his recent country-flavored hits, "That's That" and "The Moon is Still Over Her Shoulder," along with several songs from his 11th album, "One Honest Tear," to be released in January.

His songs and performing style often are simple and sentimental enough to make John Denver seem like a hardened cynic. But his presentation last night was so assured and refined, due mostly to his virtuosic talents as a guitarist, that his inherent blandness was virtually overshadowed by his good nature.

As has been the case with Johnson from the beginning, his heartfelt songs and aw-shucks demeanor can become a little wearing.

But, as usual, the audience last night seemed to take as much pleasure in his humorous spoken asides as in his songs, treating the singer like an old friend who's stopped by to swap stories.

Talking about adapting to life in Nashville, where he moved in 1987, he said, "Our neighbors don't call us Yankees anymore." The term now is "latitudinally challenged."

In the themes he explores, Johnson's repertoire is anything but challenging, drawing almost exclusively on love won and lost. But on the strength of his instrumental talent, his music is nonetheless satisfying.

Despite the degree of success he had as a middle-of-the-road performer in the late 1970s, Johnson wisely downplayed that portion of his career in favor of his far superior country-oriented material.

He's a crowd pleaser at heart, and if the response of last night's Orchestra Hall patrons was any indication, seats at next year's Michael Johnson holiday show might be every bit as precious as those Guthrie tickets.

Johnson just a happy folk minstrel
Cedarburg Cultural Center - Cedarburg, WI - January 24, 1998
Jon M. Gilbertson, Sentinel
At the beginning of the century, folk music represented its namesake: it was for the folk, each member an individual facing the community. At this end of the century, folk seems inerently quant, moving to the beat of another time. The rarity of the exceptiohns in the genre only heightens the general feeling of old-fashioned comford and movemet; after all, Dylan was almost always an anomaly.

Michael Johnson is not. Plahying to a couple of hundred enthusiastically contented fans at the Cedarburg Cultural Center on Saturday night, Johnson relied on the basic artistic cornerstones of folk; familiar stories, sing-alongs, righteousness. Like many people who relocate to Nashville, he was a fount of cheerful anecdotes, quirky jokes and vignettes about his teenage sons. Gosh, he was neat.

Johnson originally came to public awareness in the mid '60s, when John Denver recruited him for the Chat Mitchell Trio. Since 1969, when he went solo, he has not measurably change his approach. Johnson offers the same qualities Denver became famous (and later parodied) for: a great, unquestioning love of nature, a gleaming amiability, an occasional stab of anger toward obvious targets such as televangelists.

Mostly, though, Johnson lacks the dark view of Richard Thompson or the extroverted growling anger of An DiFranco. He hews more closely to the homespun wisdom of john Prine, but he leans toward a more flowery use of minstrel language such as the word "quells." And while Prine uses his voices exactly like the people he describes --- roughly, honestly -- Johnson moves from a fine cry to an embarrassing earnest croon.

Johnson does have a sharp finger-picking guitar style, elaborate yet not showy. Songs such as "Bluer Than Blue" (his biggest hit, more than two decades ago) and "Company Man" are wryly observed ad tenderly considered. Nevertheless, he comes across a little too comforting and crowd-pleasing. Though there's nothing actually wrong with such an approach.

Been There Done That — Music of life is like a bell
Jefferson County Fair - Brookville, PA - 7/23/99
Lynn Haraldson-Bering, The Clarion News Online Opinions
I have an aunt named Ethel. At first glance that's about all I had in common with John F. Kennedy Jr. My family name won't get me a table at a five-star restaurant. People aren't waiting outside my house with cameras when I go to work. I read "George," not publish it. And I'm not Irish or Catholic.

But from what I've seen and read, John Jr.'s life always seemed to be more than money, celebrity, politics, and incredible good looks. He was just as human as any of us, connected, as we all are, to the human experience through universal themes.

Death, love, joy, sadness, anger, jealousy, laziness, anxiety, hope, boredom, and any number of mortal experiences will enfold us all at some time, whether you're a Kennedy or an ordinary Haraldson-type like me. And it's how we avoid putting ourselves on pedestals that make us interesting. (Unfortunately it's the people who have the least to brag about who claim that top perch.)

That's why I love the music of singer/songwriter/guitarist Michael Johnson. His songs speak of life and of the intricate, intangible relationships we engage in.

In his song, "Almost Like Being In Love," he sings: "And the music of life seems to be like a bell that is ringing for me." During the last 13 days I've been thinking about the music of John Jr.'s life and how his was a loud reverberating bell. I think about my existence, too, and wonder if the music of my life is a bell or merely an off-key saxophone or muted trumpet.

So it was especially appropriate that I met Michael Johnson amid all my metaphysical pondering these past several days.

I interviewed him by phone a few weeks ago and was struck by his modesty and earthy charm. Like John Jr., his life, too, is more than celebrity, and when he sings, the music is who he is, he said, it's what he does.

I met him in person when he performed at the Jefferson County Fair last Friday - a warm sultry night under the stars. I had to keep looking around me, at the hills and the people, to remind me I was in Pennsylvania and not Minnesota, where I'd heard him several times before. His music has been a part of my life since I was 15 when he released the song "Bluer Than Blue," a sanctified alternative to the incessant disco of 1978.

The time between the phone interview and meeting him in person I was a nervous wreck, playing a scene in my head where I'd say something really stupid and he would run screaming in the other direction.

So when the time came and I introduced myself, I offered him a trembling hand. He smiled wide and offered me a hug. His back was warm and his shirt was wet from the late evening humidity and sweat from the heat of stage lights. The moment was unfeigned and so real it was like embracing a long-time friend. He didn't see the giving of his gift as being above the receiving.

Other people, some as far away as Harrisburg, had gathered around the stage, too, and although I didn't know them, we all talked and laughed together as though we'd known each other for years. In a way we had.

The universal experiences in the songs we came to hear made us all seem familiar. He sings of sex, desire, working and playing, love lost, love found and love that's just plain hard to shake.

"The Moon Is Still Over Her Shoulders" is probably the closest thing to a perfect love song I've ever heard.

"I'll Always Love You" (not to be confused with the Dolly Parton/Whitney Houston song "I Will Always Love You") is about the fool who let her go.

"This Night Won't Last Forever," "Gotta Learn to Love Without You" and "That's That" - songs about washing your hands clean, bucking up and moving on.

Even "Life's A Bitch (And Then You Die)" isn't as downhearted as the title suggests. Life's tough sometimes, but if all we do in this life is "love a little then we say goodbye," we've done our job.

As I watched Michael talk to the people around him like they were relatives at a family reunion it struck me he clearly understands the themes which unite us, the stuff of which he sings. It's not a conscious way of being, it's innate. No pedestals for this guy.

"So, Lucas, do you play the guitar?" he asked my daughter's boyfriend.

"No, just football and basketball," Lucas replied.

"Hey, that's cool. I was in sports once. I got through college on a gymnastics scholarship, although you couldn't tell now I used to be athletic!" he laughed.

Driving home I thought of him sitting in a Brookville hotel and I wondered if he was missing home, if he forgot his toothbrush, if he found the fish dinner he was looking for and if he got the mud out of the bottom of his guitar. I worried about those things for a person who happens to sing for a living, not for someone who knows glitz, money and celebrity.

When it comes down to it what we all have in common is much more abundant than what we don't. We all love and hate, get angry and sad, are born and will die. In that sense we're no different than the Kennedys.

The legacy of John Jr. and the example of people like Michael Johnson is to live the music of our lives like a bell and not a clanging cymbal.

So to those of you considering pedestals, if you're reading this at all, I leave you with a stanza from Michael Johnson's song "Happier Days":

"Does it seem so very strange,
That I can't feel like you.
Or do you feel so only
That you cannot see me, too."

Johnson Warms Up Music Fans
McDonell High School Auditorium - Chippewa Falls, WI - 12/27/00
Todd Moen, The Chippewa Herald
Photo at left: Michael Johnson signs an autograph for an excited Ann Geyer. Geyer said Johnson was her favorite artist and guessed that this was her sixteenth Michael Johnson concert.

In today's music world, where the latest philosophical gems are "back that thang up" and "how many licks," it seems as if much of what's coming out of the radio is music candy aimed at a mostly teenage audience.

On a cold winter night in the McDonell High School Auditorium, singer-songwriter Michael Johnson offered a considerably different viewpoint.

Johnson performed Wednesday on behalf of the Transitus House Endowment Fund. Transitus House, a service of St. Joseph's Hospital in Chippewa Falls, provides a family-like environment for the health care of women who require extended treatment in their recovery from alcoholism and chemical dependency.

It is the second straight year Johnson has performed on Transitus' behalf. In two years, he has raised more than $25,000 for the fund.

In front of roughly 250 loyal fans, Johnson started the show by singing, "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," while sitting on the edge of the stage. The warm opening number would only further strengthen the intimate feel that the concert had throughout.

Johnson mixed in a nature lesson concerning the "Bristlecone Pine," which was the title of his second number.

He said he enjoys songs from the 1940s and '50s, but always thought them to be a bit sappy, so he performed a '40s spoof with "You Make Me Feel So So," based on, "You Make Me Feel So Young." The song had the audience in convulsions of laughter throughout.

In "Miami Beach," Johnson showed his strength of being able to tell a story through lyrics and music. His next number, "Dirty Hands, Dirty Faces," did the same, telling of a father who asked his sons to be more kind and understanding to their dad than he had been.

The catchy "Ain't Dis Da Life," was next, which had many audience members singing along. It was followed by a country spoof called "Garbage Can" that quipped, among other things, "If you think you've reached the bottom, look down."

He said he'd redeem himself for the latter by singing a real country song, which turned out to be "Ponies." A newer song, "One Note Samba," preceded the final song before intermission, which was "Heart and Soul to Me." This song featured Johnson directing the audience in a sing-a-long to the famous melody it was patterned after.

After intermission, Johnson started the second half of the concert with "It's My Job." He followed with "Some People's Lives," a touching song that he felt related to the work being done at Transitus House.

He performed "The Wonderful World of Sex" as a favor to a couple of faithful fans who had heard the song at a previous concert and requested it during intermission. After the fast-paced song was over, he calmly looked out into the audience and suggested everyone partake in a cigarette, causing much laughter.

"Magic Time," a song about a couple in love, again showed his story-telling skills. Johnson then performed an instrumental called "Mona Ray" and followed that with a song about work called "Company Man." He joked that he'd do a song about work because he had "read about doing work."

Johnson made his guitar come alive on "Twenty Five Words Or Less," a song that was an audience request.

He then performed the song he is best known for, "Bluer Than Blue," which was greeted with cheers from an excited audience.

Johnson closed the concert with "Photographs and Memories," but returned to perform an encore with "This Time of Year," a song he said helped him remember the spirit of the holidays.

The Minneapolis native, who now makes his home in Nashville, was full of humor throughout the entire evening and often shared stories between each song. He also was quite personable, and mingled with concert-goers in a reception before the performance, during intermission and after the show.

When asked if he might return next year, Johnson said "I'll be back, if you'll have me."

Sounds like better music might be making a comeback, even if it's only once a year.

Michael Johnson lets the song reign supreme at Amazing Grace
Amazing Grace -Duluth, MN - 10/20/12
John Ziegler, Duluth News Tribune
As he performs, Michael Johnson gingerly navigates a greasy tightrope skillfully enough to earn him honorary membership in the Wallenda family.

Balancing cleverly written songs that have both wit and charm, over a smoldering chasm of sappy, corny, schmaltzy and cutesy-type tunes into which he could easily fall, requires taste and razor-sharp instinctual sensibilities — and Johnson has those attributes in spades.

Performing Saturday evening to a packed house in the cozy confines of the Amazing Grace Bakery & Cafe, Johnson (who's out touring behind his brand-new release "Moonlit Déjà Vu," his first studio recording in the past 15 years) is now in the process of moving back up to Minnesota from Nashville even though he vowed when he left in the mid-'70s that he'd "never shovel snow again."

Johnson demonstrated Saturday night that he has a unique approach to performing. Unlike so many of the tens of thousands of singer-songwriters who try hard to impress an audience with their vocal prowess or their instrumental wizardry, Johnson makes sure that the song reigns supreme.

Everything about his approach to his craft Saturday evening was directed at wringing every ounce of sentiment out each and every song. I believe that on Johnson's driver's license "Melancholy" must be his legal middle name, as that was the mood for the night and the mood for much of his entire catalog.

His vocals are soft, many times more spoken than sung.

His guitar arrangements have been stripped to the barest of bare bones. They're often cleverly intertwined with the vocal melody, eliminating any excess — only clean, unduplicated interaction between voice and nylon-string guitar that allows the lyric to take center stage.

It's a deceptively well-crafted approach that on first blush seems simple, almost without any flair. But peering deeper shows how 40 years of writing, arranging and performing has honed a performer who is consummate at his assignment.

"Moonlit Déjà Vu" relies on other writers for most of the material, and his "live" performance follows the very same tact.

Hugh Prestwood's gorgeous "April Fool" has an understated elegance with its "light as air" melody that floats like a little butterfly, flitting from flower to flower and never quite lighting on anything for very long. Nuanced lyrics give April a personality who "uses the same perfume the smoky mountains wear" and "tangles dogwood blossoms in her yellow hair." It's a canny song delivered by an equally canny performer.

"Emilio" is based on two real-life characters who both lived lives full of eccentricities that Johnson has shaped into a Latino-style ballad replete with descriptive images of Emilio, who "lives in an attic and plays flamenco guitar, arpeggios fall out his window and roll down the fenders of rusted-out cars."

Johnson brings a kind of Fred Astaire vibe to the stage as well. Of the effortless elegance that Astaire gave to his flawless dance routines, Johnson seems to have the aural equivalent. On W.T. Davidson's "Gee I'm Glad I Worried About That" (a droll assessment that pokes fun at us all for fretting so much about so little), Johnson smoothly issues the chorus "I'm glad to know when they lay me out flat, I did all the worryin' I could."

Johnson also has a Leo Kottke-esque sense of humor and a keen eye for a parody, as he demonstrated on a song he said he co-wrote with Roy Orbison after Roy passed ("It's much easier that way," he stated). Johnson's "Blew By You" used Orbison's melody on an impish little ditty about a toupee and a strong breeze — you can probably have fun making up your own version; begin now...

The crowd at Amazing Grace wanted a few of the old tunes, so Johnson went back to his very first recording (1973's "There Is A Breeze") to dig out "Rooty Toot Toot For The Moon" (which is actually a Greg Brown song) with its chorus of "a pearl of wisdom, a slice of green cheese, burning just like kerosene" that seemed to satisfy his longtime fans.

Michael Johnson is originally from the little town of Alamosa, Colo.; he toured with The Chad Mitchell Trio; he did some co-writing with John Denver and even formed a trio with him called Denver, Boise & Johnson; he's had major Top-40 success with mega-hits like "Bluer Than Blue" and "Give Me Wings"; he lived in a garage in Bel Air for six months with Steve Martin (yeah, the real Steve Martin); and he even had quadruple bypass surgery three years ago. He's done a lot and been through a lot, and it shows in his performance.

Musically he walks a tightrope, but he does it with style and panache.

John Ziegler has worked for 38 years in the music industry as a radio host, interviewer, record producer and professional musician.

1968 - 1975 concert reviews

1976 - 1979 concert reviews