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Thursday
Jan032008

Just Can’t Get Enough, Michael Stanley

In the end, there will be Cher and roaches -- not because of any deeper meaning, but more because of the harsh requirements of endurance and exoskeletons made of kryptonite. For even as the Stones post-AARP brand of "Satisfaction" owes as much to Metamucil as genuine danger, there will always be those with something to prove. And it's on the proving ground where the faithful burn.

So it was that Michael Stanley, once ground zero for Cleveland's collective psyche, took the stage at Nautica June 10. Having once held the city in sway with multiple night stands at only the largest venues, Stanley brings something more than mere power chords to bear -- and it raises the stakes each time he straps it on.

Though MSB's glory days are behind them, the Resonators maintain a sense of rock as deliverance. Beginning with the wings-beating build that is the intro to "Midwest Midnight," they were vigilantes looking for promises in the power of well-turned choruses and deliverance in the emotions flexed over the course of two hour and 45 minutes.

"How ya doin', Cleveland?" roared Stanley, guitar hanging loose from his shoulders like Excalibur. "Welcome back to a seriously long love affair…" Sung from a knowing place, "Midwest Midnight" is a testimony to growing up, of understanding the stakes, of being betrayed by the dream and still finding the kick inside to not only walk away but to hold one's own. As keyboardist Bob Pelander throws himself hard against the melody, the entire band raises the intensity to a place where they're taking the corners on two wheels, trusting centrifugal force to keep them grounded.

Time can be the enemy of rock bands. They start out young and angry and bold. They grow battered and disillusioned and wind up cynical or flattened by the weight of what's already happened.

For those who never quite make it, though, rock and roll becomes the weapon to fight back, to rage against the machine. When the dark-haired writer tears the face off another vocal on "In The Heartland," the anger isn't about what hasn't happened so much as a refusal to relinquish the power and the promise of rock & roll.

"Some of 'em think about leaving, but none of 'em ever do" is as much about one's commitment to the music as it is the place they're from. Amid heavy sax bursts, "Heartland" celebrates a choice to stand one's ground rather than chasing something more ephemeral -- and Danny Powers' seering guitar solo burns that decision into the audiences unconscious.

The faces of these fans are the faces of Everyman. Young. Middle-aged. Obviously privileged, probably blue collar. Washed in the throbbing backbeats and the churning melodies, they shine with the joy, the hope, the promise of Christmas morning or new love. It is nothing new they are experiencing, but merely reminding themselves of something they know: there is honor in these songs, the way the music carries them -- and that is a basic truth they can count on.

Keyboardist Pelander has a David Sancious moment that takes a very cocktail feel through a series of descending figures to heighten the tension that becomes the fiery "In Between the Lines." Ultimately shot from the gut, in many ways this song is about what has happened to both a group of journeymen as it is about this city as anything performed in the whirwind set.

With a cigarette on his lips, wailer Jennifer Lee in a tight black dress beside him and a sax player blowing an urgent elegy for hope lost along the way, this is Stanley facing the truth and being wiser if a bit shaken by the brutality of how it really is. Here drummer Tommy Dobeck is relentless -- and in those vicious impacts, the rhythm carries when the realizations topple.

Not that everything was so full-tilt. On the ballads -- especially a tugging violin-and-mandolin-laced "Spanish Nights," caressed with enough bittersweet conflict to make the pain of denial seem like the sweetest reward of all for it means one can walk about knowing the depths of how it feels and that feeling is what it means to be alive -- there is a deep heat effect that comes from a romantic willingly digging down into the emotions that make people flinch. It is in the squirm-inducing truth -- "Spanish Nights," the driving'n'crying "Lover," where Stanley reels from the punch of betrayal and a love that won't relinquish his pride or passion -- that the ballads pack perhaps more punch than even the most rocking moments.

In their hands, a blues workout like the moth-eaten "Redhouse" introduces the most root element of music: the foundation that is time-honored changes. Knowing means the flex can be the channeling of those who came before, and in that consolidation of heritage, an elevation occurs.

The slow, grinding "Redhouse" becomes a sticky, fetid opening in the ground for the blues to spawn rock. Steam practically rises from the groove as Marc Lee Shannon etches the basic melody with regret steeped in a brittle razor's edge tone which tattoos the moment with essence. The audience collapses under the force of something so primitive addressed with such measured force…

There is a flex and recoil at work here, a baptism in casting the theme and bringing it back. Pelander's electric work was solid, but on the B3 he transcends, physically sending himself into the instrument as cushions of chords fall upon each other, spent yet building into a fall-out that supports Lee's moan of the forsaken. Her tortured cries defy words -- and embodies the torture that fires the blues.

"Redhouse," a song of betrayal, is ultimately light. For Stanley, having provided a format for his band's exorcism, he shines as the contrast -- wisely not engaging the catharsis, but rather leaning into the insouciant Plan B of "if she won't love me, her sister will."

Not that Stanley's modus operandi is arm length disengagement. Embracing Steve Earle's ode to escape "Someday," a song written as an ode to the fading of Nowhere, Tennessee in one's rearview mirror, it becomes a sweet lullabye of dreaming about leaving, but never wanting to; a love song to fast cars and holding fast to what one is made of.

There is a delicate balance being struck here: raw lust in "High Times" pitted against the wistful remembrance of "Somewhere In The Night" with its defining "all you get to keep are the memories, and you gotta make the good ones last." Even in the past, though, there is a future -- and that is the central truth to the Resonators on this night -- that will deliver you if you will only let it, only believe, only let go and surrender.

When the musical explorations that dissolve into a familiar keyboard pattern, humid sax washes and an undertow that pulls the faithful out, "Let's Get The Show On The Road" offers the truth about costs and damage and the betrayal of dreams. Guitarist Powers reaches inside for a bleeding solo that defines the torment of knowing and needing to continue as the audience casts their dispersions at some unseen target.

A cautionary tale, again it is a witness to how painful it can be out on the edge -- but also a testament to the inevitability of survival. For there are no choices really, just the voice of a wiser man who arrived on the other side head reeling, trying to make sense of it all and confessing bitterly, "The Lord uses the good ones, and the bad ones use the Lord."

It is an ultimate truth, the ultimate realization. Yet all these years later, Michael Stanley can check the mate. If the dream of stardom withered on the vine, the promise of rock salvation burned even brighter and offered a purer form of deliverance.

Drawing on the assemblyline rallying cry "Working Again" and exploring "the Bo Diddley beat," then transitioning into the drama of the mining disaster "Fire In The Hole" where restraint is locked into a groove, which the band expertly rides out, staying on and staying with it, throughout a shuddering culmination that is a sweat-soaked climax that leaves one spent and feeling sated.

That would have been enough for most. But for Stanley, the crucible of a downtrodden city's hopes during its hardest times, a benediction that embraces the whole of the experience -- of a man, a band, a collection of people -- was necessary.

For Stanley and the Resonators, "My Town" offers everything they are. It is a simple song, straightforward in its understanding of the chipped dramas and faded glories of the truest lover any of them have ever found, a place to make their stand and sow their gifts in the name of music. It is a song about the things worth fighting for -- and the dreams that may've not always been obvious, but were constant companions.

The moment is so transcendent, Stanley comes off the stage after a last chorus and the band plays on. With a nod to what was, a phalanx of guards surround and sweep him away -- only for the true believer to emerge at the back of the venue for a victory lap through the people who have brought him 30 years later to a place where genuflecting before the burning desire to be something more is as simple as giving it all to the music.

In that moment, the crowd is Michael Stanley -- and he is the crowd. "East side, West side--give up, or surrender --been down, but I still rock on..."

There are some truths that should be held to be self-evident. For Michael Stanley, it would seem none greater than that. And for the fans who've kept returning on blind faith and drunk passion, it is a covenant that has never betrayed them. In a world of faster, harder, cheaper -- what more powerful reality is there?

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