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In COVID shutdown, Vegas musicians opt for Oregon, Bulgaria

Updated October 10, 2020 - 7:47 pm

Note: Today’s column is the latest in the “Surviving Shutdown” series, examining the effect of COVID-19 on the Las Vegas entertainment industry.

In December 2018, longtime friends and Las Vegas musicians Michael Johnson and Ray Allaire began renovating a van out of which Johnson would live.

Neither knew it at the time, but they had started building new lives that would carry them out of Las Vegas.

Johnson and Allaire are a pair of excellent singers, songwriters and musicians who were familiar, well-liked and highly respected around the city’s enterainment scene. Johnson had worked in town for 25 years, Allaire for a little more than a decade. Johnson’s bands included such cover acts as The A List, which bounced around town at Rocks Lounge Red Rock Resort and Moneyline (now BetMGM) at Park MGM. Allaire was a longtime member of the popular Mandalay Bay rhythm & riffs rock band Phoenix.

Both performed for years together and as soloists at Vegas lounges, bars and restaurants. In those roles, Johnson and Allaire were original Las Vegas ambient artists.

Most recently, beginning in late-December, Johnson and Allaire performed in The Windjammers yacht-rock band that had just disembarked at Rocks Lounge. The band had already drawn a robust locals following when the pandemic shutdown beached the show in March.

Johnson and Allaire can sing and play with the very best. If you never had the chance to see them, or their band, you missed out. The pandemic has prompted both to leave not only Las Vegas, but show business itself.

Johnson was the first to move. His gigs latent, Johnson applied for and was accepted into Oregon Institute of Technology’s Renewable Energy Engineering program. Yep, it’s Viva Klamath Falls for the musician who helped open Country Star bar and restaurant on the Strip, which later gave way to the Harley Davidson Cafe. He also sang background for the Cheap Trick “Sgt. Pepper Live” show at then-Las Vegas Hilton (now Westgate) and later Paris Las Vegas.

Johnson had already been living a sustainable lifestyle in his 2014 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van, and was known to drive to his gigs in his own residence.

“Me and Ray built a tiny house inside, with cabinets, solar power. I carry 46 gallons of water, I have plenty of storage and a big battery pack,” Johnson said in August during his drive to Oregon. He invested about $65,000 in the rig and its modifications. “I can be off the grid for quite awhile actually.”

Last we heard, Johnson was parked off the shores of Crater Lake.

Having earlier studied at Berklee College of Music, Johnson had accrued college credits at UNLV in his entertainment career. His performance schedule was actually soaring for the first three months of 2020. But Johnson had also been researching sustainable energy, and during the shutdown the clouds parted.

“I have this other thing I am passionate about, and that’s renewable energy and sustaining our energy consumption to survive as a species,” Johnson said. “In the grand scheme, I’m not walking away from music entirely. I’ll say what I want to say as an artist when the time comes, not when someone is going to pay me. If it comes, it comes. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t.”

Johnson’s departure was chronicled in a send-off video on The A List Facebook page.

Soon after Johnson cruised the van to K-Falls, Allaire was flying from Las Vegas to Bulgaria. He and his new bride, cosmetologist Mariya Matuska, were married on Aug. 3 (fellow Vegas musician and A-List bassist Keith Nelson was the officiant). Mariya is originally from Bulgaria.

“There was always a possibility of going there,” Allaire says. “This was a good time, while everything is down. There’s no point for me to be in Las Vegas when there is no work.”

The couple bought a very old stone-and-brick house in Rupkite (pronounced ROOP-ki-tay). It’s a real fixer-upper, costing 10,000 Bulgarian Leva (about $6,000). Rupkite is a village of about 200 on the country’s western border with Greece. The hamlet is abut three hours from Plodvid, the country’s second-largest city, and also three hours from the famously picturesque Greek beaches.

“We bought this old village house that is a total remodel/renovation, and we plan to raise chickens, goats, cattle,” Allaire says. “We’ll start small with a couple of dairy cows, a herd of goats and 20-30 chickens. We’re building a greenhouse. It’s going to be fun.”

Allaire says the town is “really a beautiful village, really super-quiet at night, and the people are really friendly and helpful and have been bringing us fruit and baskets of food.” He says property is so inexpensive the locals are concerned about new inhabitants, especially Americans, running roughshod over the village. “But they are happy we are here. We’re restoring our house, so they like that.”

Allaire is learning to speak Bulgarian, so he’s lucky that music is the international language. He posted a Facebook Live video on Saturday, hoofing it to a nighttime music festival in the little town.

“We are live from Bulgaria!” he called out, as the country’s folk music played in the background. “I actually just performed in Bulgaria for the first time. They asked me to sing a song for the annual festival here.”

Allaire joked that he’s not yet the town’s mayor, but he says, “We know the mayor, already.”

It was a touching moment, hearing the now-former Vegas entertainer describe his new surroundings. These days, what happens in Rupkite …

John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His “PodKats!” podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at jkatsilometes@reviewjournal.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.

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