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St. Peter Michael Johnson

Concert Reviews

1980 - 2000
Title:Singers Bring Divergent Styles To Fair
Venue:Minnesota State Fair Grandstand - August 21, 1980
Review: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."

Title:Michael Johnson Charms SU Audience
Venue:Festival Hall, ND St U - Fargo, ND - February 26, 1982
Review: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.

Title:Music Review
Venue:Mosque Auditorium - Richmond, VA - February 22, 1987
Review: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.

Title:Michael Johnson delivers bland but pleasing show
Venue:Orchestra Hall - Mpls, MN - December 26, 1991
Review: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.

Title:Been There Done That -- Music of life is like a bell
Venue:Jefferson County Fair - Brookville, PA - 7/23/99
Review: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."

Title:Johnson Warms Up Music Fans
Venue:McDonell High School Auditorium - Chippewa Falls, WI - 12/27/00
Review: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.



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