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Entries in Bruce Springsteen (3)

Sunday
Apr212013

Just Another Night In America: Michael Stanley + the Resonators Burn Right Where They Are

Choices and decisions. Roads taken, things that mighta, things that oughta, things that should…

Michael Stanley should have been a rock star. Like the “Almost Famous” not quite broken, eternal open act Stillwater, Stanley did everything but become  an arena-sized headliner.

Except in Cleveland, Ohio, the Rock & Roll Capital of the World, the watershed scene in Cameron Crowe’s coming of age as a baby rock critic film where Stillwater is confronted by the encroaching reality of business as survival for a little band tilting at the impossible notion of “making music, you know, and turning people on.”

In Cleveland,Ohio in the late ‘70s and early 80s, you didn’t get any bigger than the Michael Stanley Band. Two nights at the Coliseum sold out faster than Led Zeppelin. Five nights in a row at Blossom Music Center. It was a frenzy, and the city had their shot at the brass ring that regional heroes Tom Petty, Bob Seger, Billy Joel and Bruce Springsteen manifested into national renowned for their hometowns.

But that was then, this is now. What happens to rock stars who fail to launch? The ones who don’t make it, who leave an entire city gasping for their moment to seen. Because if Michael Stanley did one thing for the psysche of a downtrodden city, he let them feel seen, recognized in th eslog and shove of surviving a rough Rust Belt reality. It wasn’t Springsteen heroic, but real to the streets of Cleveland, Akron and the other factory towns that were struggling across on Northern Ohio.

Make that kind of music, especially where people are used to digging in, they show up.

Give them dignity, some swagger, some reason to believe, they hang on.

And when it’s over, they don’t forget.

Rock stars get real jobs when it’s over, blend in, make due; but they don’t forget, either. Just everything changes.

The reasons, the drives, the motifs. Still, the ones who believe never falter.
Because even when life moves on; the power of what music means sustains.

The trick is to swerve beyond the trap of nostalgia, bypass the sodden machismo of “who we were.” Things may be larger in the rearview, but they’re gone. Hang onto what’s gone, you might as well lay down and die. Over and done, you’ll miss what’s ahead to be savored.

For Michael Stanley, and the fans who peopled the four capacity nights at the slightly shabby Tangiers, it’s not about merely remembering. Not any more. If in the two decades he’s been doing these intimate shows, there were years of marking time and fulfilling people’s desire to hear the canon of their truly golden years one more time; it happens. In some ways, it’s the gravitational force of the needing to return to something you knew without thinking that lets tedium set in.

Whatever the last several months have held, there was a moment where it all flipped over. What it was becomes what is. That which “never quite happened” suddenly matters, perhaps even more than when it first had its moment. Because now the need to believe, the need to celebrate is even more pressing.

Like the city of Cleveland itself, Michael Stanley is still here. Still writing songs, still brandishing that brand of heartland rock and roll that makes the people of the flyover know they’re not forgotten in the rush for newer, hipper, younger. A little weathered from the miles, it’s not about still standing, but being triumphant in the journey. Celebrating where you are for what it is and flying the defiant flag of “we don’t give a damn about you, either/we have each other-- and know how to hang on when it ain’t easy,” the now becomes imperative.

Throwing the gauntlet from the very first downstroke of “It’s All About Tonight,” a brakes-cut bit of bravado that is all carpe nocturnum, they don’t look back. Stanley, who’s earned the right to coast, hits the stage with purpose.  Sixty-five years old, he sings harder, digs deeper and drops his often stoic resolve more now than ever.

It is music that, when fully surrendered to, transforms, lift people up and drives them past the inertia of merely getting by. That is where Stanley is now. It is obvious from his attack and his intensity that he wants to take his people with him.

His old songs burn with an urgency. A whiplash sting to “In Between The Lines,” the song ofpersonal and cultural reckoning ignited by the murder of John Lennon, it's a brutal indictment and fierce reminder. In some ways, a napalm rage against the killing of our innocence, “Lines” serves as a call to investment, to engagement, to taking an active role in making the world a place beyond rage, avarice and nihilism.

That electricity echoes on the waves of Danny Powers’ slow burning lead guitar and Bob Pelander’s cascade of piano notes during the bridge of “I Am You.” Again, Stanley sees the power in identification, the embodiment of being in it together. For him, it’s a state of inclusion, the combined energy making everyone so much more… and also the unspoken declaration of the heroic position of enduring for others.

Rock and roll used to mean that. In Northern Ohio, it still does.

“I Am You” leads to the pensive “Winter,” a meandering Celtic-folk-leaning ballad that starts innocently enough. Equal parts reflection and regret, it’s also a knowing measure of where one is. To be willing to want to live, to hang onto what could be is the greatest fuel there is – especially knowing that one’s days are numbered.

The rush of that awareness fosters a force that fuels a colossal jam as the song shifts tempos, builds and lunges towards some exhaustive shudder. Harkening back to when AOR songs left room for excavation of melody and form, “Winter” bookends the much older “Lets Get The Show On The Road,” a bitter snapshot of the ennui of road life, the emptiness of the dream when it betrays you and the dead end that never seems to actually end.

Containing the line “the Lord uses the good ones, and the bad ones use the Lord,” “Let’s Get The Show On The Road” illuminates an insight not yet experienced. Yet strung across the free form jazz back section, all paper tigers and Trojan horses of the lies we’re sold, what we need to believe and the way the dream can draw and quarter you, Stanley's seething witness blisters.

It is not blind rage, but the ballast of knowing.

The revenge is to keep coming. No retreat, no surrender. Indeed, exult in what is, what’s left, what you know and what yougot, not what people try to sell you. This beer won’t make you sexier, that hair care product won’t make you young.

That unflinching staredown transforms a song of not nearly enough into a rallying cry. The kick inside may be the only shot you got. But it’s what you got, and that seems to be the resonant note this night in Akron.

With an encore of “Working Again,” from the aptly titled Heartland, there is the Rodney Psyka conga/Tommy Dobeck drum pastiche that works multiple rhythms into a frenzy that sets the urgency in motion. Ultimately, another song of making ends meet, borrowing against tomorrow because that’s all there is, the desperation is marked by a fierce commitment to getting by with one’s two hands and the strength of a very broad back. If there is a more joyous drummer to watch than Dobeck, who hits with as much finesse as punch, it is hard to imagine – and that euphoria feeds the performers as they dig in for the duration.

Like “It’s All About Tonight,” the immediacy is visceral. These fans know how these realities feel, they’re not American Express premium ticket holders buying the illusion of authentic blue collar exigency. These are their songs, cast as large as the room – and their souls – can contain. Packing a walloping Bo Didley beat, which Stanley tells them “is the beat your parents warned you about,” the crowd is on their feet, shaking what their mothers gave them for all its worth.

The Resonaters know the power of that primal pull. As the vamp builds, the “uhn, ahh” turns into the call and response of coitus. It is both metaphoric and literal – and the crowd surges towards their own sort of full-tilt musical climax. They want it, they’re gonna have it – and they shriek with abandon, spent but not quite exhausted.

In part, it’s a case of momentum being exponentiated via the ballads the fans are most invested in – “Falling In Love Again” sung more by the crowd than Stanley, a stately trek through the ’79 steamy slow dancer “Lover” – which allows regaining their collective breath to gather their fervor, then pushing further onto a pulsing forward tilt of these blue collar anthems that define the Midwest.

Being the last night of the stand doesn’t hurt. Stanley sung as hard on the fourth night as he’s ever sung, leaning into vocals, pushing phrases with a power that supercedes his normally smoky pensiveness or bitter bark. It’s as if he’s singing for his life; in many ways, though, his is.

These songs, culled from years in the trenches, are a litany of fighting back, of almost/not quite and try, try again. To get knocked down and denied so many times, and to get still back up and play, not for the record deal or the big tour or a Grammy, but because your soul requires it is the purest reason there is.

A holy pursuit, there is no gain beyond the moment, remembering how alive you can feel. That moment of putting the pedal down, pushing the night to its limits – and feeling the things that gave you such potency when you were young, realizing those emotions are still something you can feel, embrace, wrap yourself in offers an energy otherwise untapped.

It’s not buying a Corvette and driving too fast, looking like an old fool too deep into losing touch to know the difference. This is about the intersection of dignity and what you’re made of is. The simplicity of suiting up, showing up and throwing down to the point of all that there is. Not for the money or the glory or the fame, but because as Springsteen says, “it ain’t no sin to be glad you’re alive.”

Who we were, who we are, who we will be. It dangles in the humidity on one of Paul Christensen’s sax solos, sultry and ripe with the promise of desire; echoes of moors and Appalachia in Marc Lee Shannon’s mandolin turns. Beyond words, it's in the blood, pumping, throbbing, surrendering to how fierce it must be to be true to its point of origin.

No one else may ever see. No one beyond the moment will ever know. It doesn’t matter. For the assembled, this is all there is – and it fills the need in ways the superstar on his private jet, the high gloss fame monger or pampered starlet will never know.

Snookie be damned, this is real. Real is what matters once you know happily ever after is right where you stand if you wrap your arms around it, and take it for all its worth. Michael Stanley – and the people who love his music – have figured that out. It is all that they need to get by.

20 April 2013

 

Saturday
Jun042011

And then she is... stars (June 4, 2010)

Zelda. She had that way. She just did. Even in the end, she remained the ultimate monster of love (to borrow from Sparks). She felt the wind whipping into the car, sunk into the music, took it all in -- and dreamed.

The people at the vet's were just as unwrapped as Ali and I. There is never a moment sending doggies to heaven is easy. But some patients -- and Zelda was a baby they'd pulled through a couple big crisis. and she'd charmed them in her weakness just like she did everyone else -- are tougher than others.

But everyone tried to be brave, through their wired set jaws and their too veiled eyes. The inevitable is just that... just... time. And there's nothing you can do -- like water slipping through your fingers, it's just gone.

Zelda got quiet, too. She knew. Not quiet in a scared way, but in a "this is it" way, uncertain of the future... knowing, no doubt, they were going to stick her, because they always stuck her -- and just too tired to even know what to think about it.

Sarah, her very favorite office person, was there. She'd been dealing with a fairly upset me on the phone for the five months it had taken the spaniel's kidneys to fail. She is patience and kindness and knowing. Zelda was glad to see her...
And Dr. Stanland was there. Quiet, calm, gentle. She had done the same protocol on a Sunday 14 years prior as an emergency for Scott, Zelda's brother. She understands the way sorrow runs through your veins, permeates every fiber of your being, every breath taken.
"You ready?" she asked the poodle. Zelda looked up, so tired she could barely smile. She was. I wasn't, but the little girl was ready to fly, to romp, to be free -- of all pain, all exhaustion, all the nausea that had plagued her.
Dr Stanland explained the process. A sleeping medicine to let her drift off, then something to end her suffering -- before it was just too much. And, because Dr Ann thinks of everything, BABY FOOD! Something to nibble while the first injection was being given.
Never mind the plate of beef burgundy Zelda had just devoured. A new and delicious snack. The poodle was elated. Yummy! Yes! More... and she ate the entire jar, licking the spoon and smiling at Sarah.
"You can take her out to the car," my vet said, knowing -- as did everyone -- that was Zelda's most favorite place.
Zelda, so weak, she doesn't even think twice about walking. I scoop her up, and she melts into me. She just lets go and merges into my body as she did so many mornings when she wanted to keep me all for her.
Back in the car, there is more music. More petting that silky blond fur, kissing the top of her head. Trying not to cry, because as the orderly told me when my father was so ill with the cancer, "He don't need your tears... and your sadness... He needs to feel joy, and life... and love. You bring him THAT, and you leave your pain out there -- cause he's got enough of that."
She was wide, that orderly. Tough and big and brown. An old, honest Florida texture you don't see much anymore. She was right about Zelda, too.
Sarah came out to check on us. Took on look at Zelda, shook her head laughing. "She's not going to sleep. Of COURSE!"
Cars and Mommies and music and friends. How do you miss that? Certainly not for sleepy Zeldas, no. No!
Sarah petted Zelda, too. Talked about what a great spirit she had, what a big life... an even bigger personality. Zelda was nothing, if not a force of nature.
Eventually, her eyes started to be heavier than her will to rock. All the Allmans, the Patty Loveless, the Rodney Crowell and the Otis Redding couldn't keep Z from the land of Nod.
"She might be ready...," I half-asked.
Sarah nodded. "Yeah, she's asleep."
And so, once again, I scooped up my dream baby -- and rose out of the car. This time, people had tears in their eyes when we talked through the lobby, the satellite of fluff and silky shine tangled up in my bare arms, ready to go to heaven.
She was ready. It wouldn't hurt, but it would end the pain, the exhaustion, the nausea. This was an extraordinary little girl... and she laughed through all of it, but it had worn her down. It was time.
My friend Michael is a dog person. He'd lost his dear Sid Vicious suddenly. He had been a constant source of encouragement, of knowing when, of doing the right thing... He had all but held my head in a book called THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN, but even still he couldn't get me to read it.
On a flight after a very fraught trip to Austin, I had cracked it open, had finished it the next night in the lost hours in Woodstock, NY. A trip I'd taken because my beloved Hobbs had insisted I would be a better Mommy to Zelda if i got a break, got my head clear.
THE ART OF RACING IN THE RAIN is written from the perspective of a man's best friend, the night before the doggie is to be put to sleep. It sounds sad, but it is triumphant. Enzo lives, runs, flies -- and returns in the most unlikely ways, as his good owner finds his own depths, altitudes and soars.
In this moment, with tears running down my face, I understand why it was so important to my friend to get me to read that book. Why my confession that I'd started and was being held hostage prompted an actual phone call from him... and that he knew what I couldn't until this very moment: it made me feel better.
Dr Stanland put the needle in, depressed the plunger. She offered comforting words, understanding, compassion. Ali brought her quiet strength and her bottomless love for the spaniel, too.
Zelda couldn't have been surrounded by more caring, more grace, more magic. She knew that. Her breathing slowed and slowed. My fingers gently laid on her rib cage, stroking her side so whether she was awake or not, she knew her Mommy was right there with her.
And then it stopped. Another tear fell.
But I knew something -- in spite of the giant tear and hollowness opening up inside me. I knew that Zelda was already on the wind, her ears flying behind her, laughing and marveling at how she was getting her sleek, strong, sexy superspaniel body back.
She was laughing. She was exultant. She was light, bright blinding white light -- shining, shimmering. She was free.

"Is she gone?" I croaked, knowing, but needing to be told.
Dr. Stanland nodded, smiled in the sad way of people who know it's the right have.
"Okay," I said. "Okay..."

Zelda was gone. There was only one thing to do: Get in the car and drive. Drive fast. Drive hard. Drive nowhere and everywhere -- just the way Zelda always liked. Windows down, music up, hands held out to the darkness, to touch everything that the early evening might hold.
From that point on, of course, the night holds the promise of a beautiful butter colored spaniel. Just as the indigo swallows the sunset, somewhere around 72 miles an hour... if you have the Stones or Jackson Browne, John Prine or Alex Bevan, "Dream On" or Bruce Springsteen's "Drive All Night"... you can feel the softness of Zelda's fur... Zelda's heart...
All you have to do is reach out and touch it. She's always there, laughing and urging you on. Roll down your windows -- and see.

Sunday
Feb172008

New Friends, Old Loves, Reasons To Believe

Ronnie Dunn found a Jack of Clubs out there in the desert, where New Mexico rises into mesas and falls into chasms that spill into the Rio Grande River. A weathered card that promises good times and late nights, pitted by sand and wind and life -- and he smiles when he lifts it off the ground, forgotten by the person who brung it, turning it over and displaying the truth.It is a truth he knows by heart. Because while Dunn might be a country music king now, he spent years as a wild-eyed Jack -- sowing sparks and fire, neon and kerosene on the heart of Saturday night as a jukejoint, honky tonk flamestarter Stealth and not being so visible often the truest ally of those who would chase the night. Ali Berlow, mom, wife, NPR sensualist/food essayist, leans back into her seat on the plane lifting off the narrow, cracked runway at Martha's Vineyard Airport and closes her eyes. Her life lies below - and she's spinning into a new orbit for a few days. It's a place where the ponies run wild, the music is life's blood and the friendships form fast and hold fast, starting in the middle And there in Pittsburgh, Bruce Springsteen holds a hushed and holy altar call for the blue collar faithful. He's a solitary man in his unbuttoned low black gypsy shirt, leather chord knotted around his neck, guitar slung low, too. He is handsome in a rugged way that says high plains drifter even if he's more Jersey shore refugee -- and that low flame dignity is what makes him the patron saint and embodiment of the working classes almost 30 years since Born To Run became a classic. Bruce Springsteen understands the dignity of the common schmuck, just as he's not afraid to walk through the valley of his humanity. And it's somewhere between those extremes, the valor of lives overlooked emerges, and it does. For not everyone is bold-faced, back-lit, air-brushed, fluffed and buffed and puffed to perfection. In a world of the real, it is the real who most often get ignored. Not because people aren't dying for it, but because it is so seemingly unexceptional, so common, so not worth noting. Yet in those moments that are the slightly dog-eared just like everybody else -- only maybe a little more distraught -- Bruce Springsteen brings it all back home. As Lester Bangs tells young aspiring writer William Miller in Cameron Crowe's coming of age as a baby rock-crit flick "Almost Famous": "All you have to do is listen." Indeed. To the heartbeat, mocking you with the echoing of that great big empty chamber you can never quite fill.. To the roar of the room in the enveloping silence. To the way the sweat beads and collects in the moments of desperation from too much boredom and not enough prospects. Springsteen's world is where the ceilings are too low -- and the only freedom is the vast expanse between here and the horizon. Two lanes of tar covered ribbon tearing up what lies in front, orchestrating an escape, four bald tires gripping for everything they're worth, self-contained exit a matter of pressing the pedal and not looking back. Within it, though, are truths. Deep essential truths about who we are and how we live our lives. Truths about the scraped, bruised, dinged things that are more precious than rubies -- in part because they are the things we love, but just as importantly because they are within the realm of what can be attained. There are pipe dreams, and there are brass rings. One is just so much ether to make you high, make you forget, wake you up emptier than you started, mocked by an aspiration that was grounded in less than nothing. But the other, well, that is a whole other truth -- the ability to push one's limits, to seek something better, more -- and perhaps if the risk is weighed properly, a ship that could come in. Bruce Springsteen's losers have dreams that could wash up on the shore, that could slightly cracked, definitely chipped, certainly faded come true. As the scrawny, scraggly-headed Romeo pledged to Mary, the object of too many lost souls' desire, as he raged against the less than status quo he's being told to accept, "We're pulling out of here to win," it was about jettisoning the shackles and soaring on opportunities made with one's sweat, muscle and dreams, soaring on the thrilling power of what real love, true love -- the kind of love that lets you know you've truly been seen, seen as you are, not as they try to marginalize you -- embodies. Passion plays. Acts of faith. Ties that bind. Moments that make everything matter more. Revelations that drop illusions. All of it unnoticed, except for the ones caught under the weight of the experience -- or recognition. The people Bruce Springsteen sings about -- the rebels who refuse to die, who get home from work, wash up and go racing in the street. The ones for whom it's not about pink slips, so much as breaking the inertia that pulls you down, that holds you frozen until its beyond too late. And the crisis of faith turns into the clarity that forges steel wills and iron strength. The man in "The River," triumphantly laid back this night at the University of Pittsburgh is reborn of the eternal flame that burns when you see that life ain't a trap, it's a heroic thing if you'll let go of the side, let it wash you clean and feel the power of its smallest triumphs. This is a man who got captured by circumstances, served a meager fate and yet refused to now bow his head. In that eyes aloft pride, he becomes everything powerful about a man. Not that everything is such a test of mettle as that. "Two Hearts" serves as joyous a romp for the music man as the sobering reality that is "Matamoros Banks" illuminates the plain brutality that Springsteen sees as the migrants' fate, or "Youngstown," his moaning a portrait of a proud man who worked hard for the factory only to find that his time was up and his effort meant nothing -- in spite of the high water promises of the ones for whom he contributed to the prophet. But it's in the middles, the recognition that with every tie that binds, there is a knot that gets caught in one's throat, that we can relax and choke down, swallowing whatever comes with it, or merely set and let be what will be. How we choose to deal is as much an element of our priorities as the circumstances we're cast in. Active decisions, though, are where we define the way we live -- and even teetering on the brink only cashes the check The Bible promised, the one about an untested man being neither good, nor evil, but merely unproven. For it is in being decisive that we are defined. Say "Yes." Say "No." Say "When." He'd not yet played The Tunnel of Love's "One Step up," a song about how hard it is to keep the faith, to be married and present in the face of the inevitable erosion of real life -- but recognizing that as easy as it is to fall, it's a damn sight harder to pick up one's gaze after the fait accompli. Sure there's a girl at that bar who's looking single and a focal point narrator who ain't feeling too married -- but in the end, the ties will hold, the honor last, the temptation passes and, hopefully, he goes home to make it stronger. "This one's for Kenny," he says, cryptic, a reference no one understands. "Thanks for the card." The card. Another article of faith. A note about why Bruce Springsteen mattered to a kid from Luttrell, Tennessee who was the slowest running back in the history of Gibbs High School. It was a note that spoke volumes about the power of music to transform the unseen -- and also to validate the power of the connection the makers' of music have to the power of their music being recognized as it reflected their life and so many other's in the process.. The note was 4 years old. The power of its "what those songs mean" message held for a man who's beyond a legend. The power of "what those songs mean" held for everyone in the room, everyone who'd ever believed in a "Thunder Road" or "Mary Queen of Arkansas" or "Sandy" -- and Madame Marie, "Cadillac Ranch"es, floating up into "The Rising." At one point, I look over, and Ali Berlow is crying. She a grown woman of the world, an inhabiter of Africa, a windsurfer in Tobago, a mother of two, a lover of a font maker, a friend, a cook and a nurturer to a changing coterie of strays and fascinating fellow travelers of the world Ali Berlow is lovely -- falling somewhere between Emmylou Harris and Kim Bassinger, and she can teach you to taste things in a fleshy, juicy plum you never imagined existed. She is a pool of unruffled water, depths barely suggested from the surface, yet willing to whoop and dance in front of whomever might watch should the spirit rise. Ali Berlow is a woman so many wish to be. And she is a woman they hardly know. What simmers beyond the obvious is where her treasure truly lies. How many miss it, caught in the dazzle of that which is easily seen? And so Ali Berlow runs off for moments with the circus -- trapeze flyers, true believers, hungry hearts and lion tamers who beckon come on, hungry for the tranquility and the mothering she sows without even knowing, drinking up the thrills they take for granted every day. It's an even trade, this. But also a trade that makes each more. Not just more, so much more. More alive, more vital, more vibrant, more aware of everything around the other. It is more than a halo -- or an aura that is "so purple." It is a truth that makes you see how precious every moment is, every person, every look or smile or tear. It is the reason Ronnie Dunn, too successful for his own good, can find the kick inside and the exuberance of putting it down, pushing a sun-parched blue highway as hard as it can go with the Allman Brothers' Live At the Filmore East set on stun. It is yowling along with the abandon of being 14 and your parents not knowing you've got the car, the liberation of the speed and the sound and the communion of two voices -- one perfectly pitched, powerfully landing square on each note, inflection, intention there, the other person's slightly bent, just missing it by "this much," yet bringing so much heart to the table that accuracy doesn't matter. Ronnie Dunn, preternaturally cool, inscrutable behind those streamlined dark glasses, letting go of the "Ronnie Dunn," descending into the unfettered rapture of songs and moments and an exhilarated uncalibrated soul slung wide across the moment. He's come to Santa Fe to dissect hard truths for a tv camera -- the polemics and dichotomies of growing up in a church-anchored family driven by a truck-drivin', wild-cattin', honky tonk squalorin' father. Ronnie Dunn, who will shoot impossibly high end tequila with the mystical Western artist Bill Worrell at the 5 star Tudor Adobe hotel La Posada, eat eggs at a diner downtown where he knows every waitresses' name, visit the self-portrait of pioneering renegade Indian artist TC Cannon -- cast in blazing indigo and tangerine and lemon and crimson -- he now owns, and can't even believe his luck. Ronnie Dunn is the intersection of contradiction, a man who lives high and lives low with equal appreciation, and that is what makes his art stick. For whether you were a part of the strip mall honky tonk revolution -- with its loud, primary-color block-cut cowboy shirts and herky jerky line dancing -- or maybe didn't scan except as the dudes with attitude and cowboy hats on the Corn Flakes box all those years ago, Brooks & Dunn have been the sterno on the hotplate of country music's fast-forward evolution. Big guitars, bold sonics, crashing cymbals, throbbing bass -- they took everything rock & roll and brought it straight to the behind-chicken-wire beer joints where the jukeboxes bled neon for a hybrid that blew it up. But for all the propulsive throbbage of classic hillbilly music -- figure Waylon Jennings set to 11 with a back of Johnny Cash's thrompier moments -- it was about what Brooks & Dunn meant to the working people. Maybe not as eloquent as Springsteen, but every bit the rallying cry for hard work, American made domestic shoulder-down, sweat-soaked and bliss-within-it-all reality-based programming. Their 3 chord, a cloud of dust and the truth performances were a lot about taking the corner on two wheels, extensions of the F-or-fight club that's Hell on weekend nights, but also true believers in the power of one's own hands getting it done, taking care of one's family and bringing it all back home when the rubber meets the road. It's when you get to "Red Dirt Road," the last song the two both put their names on, that the higher elevations come together. It's the truth about what goes on in the flyover, the places where "I drank my first beer/ It's where I found Jesus/ It's where I wrecked my first car/ I tore it all to pieces" -- and it's also the place that couldn't be jettisoned fast enough only in a perfect siren's song of revenge drew the singer back with even deeper truths than that first motherlode of life, love and lessons. "Red Dirt Road" has a happy ending. The singer gets the girl he never should have lost in the first place. But he also comes to realize that salvation isn't "just for high achievers," a fact that means happiness is found along the way -- like the flowers that grow through the cracks in the sidewalk. Not something that'll go for hothouse prices, but is even lovelier for the circumstances that they bloomed through. That's the thing about these true people truths: they work where they're realized. There is nothing fancy about arrival or awareness or delivery; it happens when and where it does, and you can't be the same after. It's the reality of not being able to not know once you know. Look at Springsteen. All these years later, still showing us the things most people miss; and in those shared visions, overlooked in the blur of getting by, we find out that what makes us similar, special, precious is not just attainable, it just is. And in those visions, seconds, connections, all the futility, invisibility that we feel fades away. In being a number, we become part of the tide of life. Invisible, yet seen by the larger frame condition. Indeed, listening to the Sacred Heart of the Stone Pony strumming that acoustic guitar with a resonance so grand it fills up the University of Pittsburgh's Events Center, it's the things that go unseen that become larger than life. The truth, though, that saves comes at the very end. After performing "Homestead" with the Iron City's troubadour rocker Joe Grushecky, Bruce dug back into the tautly brooding Darkness on the Edge of Town portfolio for "The Promised Land," a song that puts the power of a bankrupt American dream into the manifest destiny of the man witnessing it. "Gonna be a twister to blow everything down/ Ain't got the faith to stand it's own ground," he wails. The anti-hero of "The Promised Land" sees how bereft our way of life has become; recognizes it's barely scraps and getting by for so many factory-men and 9-to-5 women; sees the diminishing rewards for hard work, blue collar values, believing in the promise inherent to this nation. Even as he sees it, though, he's not going to give in. He won't accept what they're selling as the status quo. It is one of those John Steinbeck stark American awakenings. When the song's object raises his fist vocally to declare, "I'm no boy, no I'm a man/ And I believe in the promised land," it is a profound coming of age. Not just for one young man in transition, but for a way of life that plants its truth in the ground -- and is willing to walk the walk of mattering. Because until we recognize and profess our own value, how can we expect anyone else to see it, or more importantly, treat it with the respect we ourselves have not imbued it with? That is the beauty and the brutality of the unseen. It exists beyond cognizance, every bit as precious and valuable, but it isn't worth anything at all, because no one even knows it's there. No, when we are willing to stand up and be counted -- not in insurrection, though that certainly is a truth that holds, but in celebration of all that we are -- we become that which matters. It is in seeing, recognizing, accepting the deepest grace, the proudest reality of our humanity, that our situation no longer defines us. No, we're not just a man, we're golden, we're light, we're everything good and weak and proud and profane about the human condition. In that moment, in that commitment to who we are and the greater commonality of the human truth, where we are is where we need to be. The promised land isn't just where we're standing or trying to get to, it's a state of arrival that is dignity in the downlow, heaven in the here and now and the deliverance of knowing where and what we are is enough -- and enough is more than plenty.

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