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Entries in Cleveland (2)

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

 

Friday
Jun172011

Steve Popovich, Bill Johnson: Passion, Fight, Creativity + Rock & Roll Dreams

Steve Popovich, Bill Johnson

Rock & Roll Dreams Come Through

    I'm in a shitty hotel room, chattering and chilled to the bone. I've driven all day, and it doesn't even matter. Sometimes you do what you have to do - even when it doesn't make sense to the people that know you.

     It's not irrational. I know exactly why I'm here -- shivering, waiting for the heat to actually kick in. And it's not just the funeral for an iconoclast with a huge heart and bigger balls, even though that's why I'm here.

     It is about the world in which we live, the vineyard in which I've toiled going on thirty years. It's the way I spent my life and the beliefs I've held. Especially at a time when doing the right thing, fighting for greatness, believing the music matters is at best quaint, but most likely is viewed - no matter what “they” say - as chump stuff.

     Steve Popovich, who passed away Jun 8th in Murfreesboro, TN, would disagree. He'd tell you to fight for what's right, to stand up for what's different, believe in the music, not the business or the politics or the egos… to know great, no matter the guise, and make sure it gets heard.

     Steve Popovich was that kind of guy. That's how he lived… right til he died.

     That kinda guy… big, bottomless heart. True believer. Fearless advocate for what he believed. Tireless in pursuit of great music - be it progressive polka bands like Brave Combo or Michael Jackson, Boston or David Allen Coe. When Meatloaf sold 200,000 copies of his first album and Epic Records informed him they'd done all they could do, Popovich went market-by-market and created a sensation, making Bat Out of Hell the biggest selling record that year.

      That's the thing about true hearts and big dreams… they don't let go. They'll haunt you. Take hold and keep holding. Rarer than rubies, when you encounter one, you never forget. They will make you do things you can't believe you're doing…

     Like driving 10 hours dead exhausted at the end of a record launch and an Oscar winner on a red carpet… to sit in a church where I know barely anyone… to honor a legacy so many would never understand. Because it's just not done that way. Not any more. Not to the point where people even understand why it matters.

     And yet, if you know, experienced, saw or even glimpsed Steve Popovich in action, there was no way you could turn away. How could you? To see passion, raw and unfiltered, 250 proof and looking for matches… that was the kind of thing that left people speechless.

     Only Steve Popovich would never settle for that. He wouldn't let people stand by mute. He'd cajole and engage and encourage. He wanted you to know… for sure… but he wanted to know. All about you. And every single you in the room, the street, the world. What did you think? need? feel? what makes you thrill? ache? rage?

     He was genius at it.

     Which is what made him the kind of promo man who can change everything for a rocker, a songwriter, a band

     Which is what made him the kind of A&R man who could convince a barely post-teenage Michael Jackson to sign with Epic Records.

     Which made him the kind of guy who picked up Johnny Cash and polka king Frankie Yankovic during his Nashville tenure and let them feel like kings, not scraps in a record business that seemed to have thrown them away.

     That was the thing about the coal miner's son from Western Pennsylvania, he not only knew the margins, he understood them. Just like he understood the working class, the blue collar, the faceless mass that one by one added up to platinum, double platinum - or in the case of a husky operatic tenor with designs on rock & roll, 14 million in the end.

     That was the thing about Steve Popovich - as Meatloaf, that 14 million piece success, so beautifully noted as he eschewed the podium to stand by the white draped casket at St John of the Cross: “Steve passed on us twice, but he never dismissed us.”

     Steve Popovich wouldn't. Indeed, couldn't. If he hid behind the notion he was just “some Hunkie,” he understood the power of passion. Knew that if you had talent fueled by that ardor, there was nothing you couldn't do… you just had to believe and refuse to give up.

     No matter how crazy or futile it seemed. As industry legend Ron Alexenburg noted, Steve Popovich carried Meatloaf's flame for almost a year - one market at a time - until Bat Out of Hell kicked in. In his tenacity, he wouldn't give in. In his faith, a superstar was forged.

     Someone spoke of his denial, how it kept him from embracing how mighty his opponents were… and how that allowed him to persevere. They talked of how every day the business broke his heart, but every morning, he woke up happy, willing to believe in the power of dreams and music.

     He took on - and beat in court - Sony Music, a behemoth multi-national corporation. Never one to be intimidated, he knew his truth - and he wouldn't be brow-beaten or condescended to by a group of Harvard-educated attorneys.

     He was Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. Only Steve Popovich helped so many people get their hands on the brass ring… built bridges when it wasn't happening… created chances where anyone else would've laughed. Boston, Southside Johnny, the Michael Stanley Band.

     He believed in people who believed in their music, who had the fire and weren't afraid to blow on the flame until it burst into some kind of blaze. Even the Michael Stanley Band - whose seminal Stagepass is reputed to have sold gold on Northern Ohio copies alone - turned into a powerhouse of mythic Midwestern proportion: selling out the Richfield Coliseum for two nights faster than Led Zeppelin, staging multiple SRO night stands at the outdoor amphitheatre Blossom Music Center and retiring with a ten night capacity stand at the more dignified Front Row.

     Two out of three of those places are gone. Blossom, summer home to the Cleveland Symphony, has a few other reasons to survive. But all those altars to what music can mean to kids coming of age in the real world before reality tv, leaked home porn and trainwreck drug use could make anyone a sensation… That was the thing that Steve Popovich instinctively knew and absolutely built a life on.

     And so the tributes came: Clive Davis. Miami Steve Van Zandt, Ian Hunter. Meatloaf in person, and 80s teen sensation Robbie Benson.  Record men, local ethnic people he'd embraced, national level radio bigwigs, co-workers from back when, Northern Ohio icons like Daffy Dan and Beachland Ballroom owner Cindy Barber, dignitaries from the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Congressman Dennis Kucinich and family. Especially family.

     If Steve Popovich loved music, he stood for family. How many of the speakers called him “Pops,” and that was how the larger - literally and figuratively - than life figure liked it. He believed in his kids, his grandkids, other people hanging onto their roots and their blood.

     He was fierce about that, fierce the way only a Midwesterner who believed in certain kinds of sanctity can be. That notion of how strong family is gives them a foundation to dig in and fight, to believe in loyalty, commitment and making something more where nothing exists. But it's never nothing - there is always the invisible connection that is family, friendship, creativity, respect.

     Funny thing about this death. Came just when I'm drifting. Not sure if any of it matters, if people care about songs that reach down inside, show you what you didn't know you were feeling, reminded you how great something small can be. Things that last, because they're things that can be cemented by small groups of people.

     It's been a long time since I've truly worked a record. But a promise made three years ago has found me guardian angel-ing The Dreaming Fields by Songwriter Hall of Famer Matraca Berg. It's a grown up work about how life buckles and stumbles, the things we do to survive, coping with disappointment and soldiering on. It harkens back to Neil Young's most organic records, Joni Mitchell's more brooding, personal works.

     The journalists are overwhelmed. Too much grunt work, not enough inspiration. Little records that could - especially ones that don't come on their own wave of critical mass - are impossible dreams. Every placement just about is hand-over-hand, phone-call-after-phone call.

     But the record is --- in a world where hyperbole has become the new white noise and platitudes land like so many leaves in the fall, weightless and anonymous - amazing. Once people hear it, they're transfixed; their souls open and they remember how music can change everything.

     The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, USA Today, Rolling Stone The Boston Herald, The Dallas Morning News, The Huffington Post, No Depression.com and NPR's All Things Considered are the tip of the iceberg. There is more to come… and there is SIRIUS/Xm, too.

     Popovich would approve. The calling and witnessing for love, not money, friendship, not career move. But it's labor intensive, and who works like that anymore? Why would you? And with every placement so hard won, how long can you keep it up? How many hits until some kind of word of mouth critical mass kicks in?

     At what point does the dreamer become a fool?

     At what point does forgoing one's life in the name of someone else's dream seem lunacy not heroism?

     At what point do you realize the loyalty you show may not be the loyalty returned?

     Michael Stanley, a Popovich windmill, would write a song called “Different Reasons” that contains a lyric that speaks to it all:

     “You can always tell a dreamer,

     “You just can't tell them,

          “tell them anything…”

     And so it is. A girl an ocean away, fixing to play the legendary Glastonbury Festival. Her oldest friend, sitting in a church pew, wondering how everything that mattered got lost in the flood. A roomful of folks who know the difference feeling cuckholded by the status quo.

     But once you know, how can you not know?

     How can you honor Steve Popovich and accept the diminishing of what can be?

 You don't. Indeed, you can't.

     It is three days later. I am in a progressive bistro near Case Western Reserve University, near Hessler Street and all the museums, the symphony hall; I'd come here after the funeral, to think and drink and escape - and I have returned to finish this.

     In 48 hours, much has happened.

     A 3:30 rise for a flight to Nashville to drive 500 miles to Savannah, Georgia to get out of the car and interview Susan Tedeschi and Derek Trucks about their band. To make sense of my notes, to watch the show - and musicians engaging in webs of soul, of funk, of jazz, even as they grounded in a gritty blues-steeped rock.

     They were exultant. The horns and the singers, the twin drummers, the bass player who plays like the best chocolate cake, creamy and dark and sweet and moist, a keyboardist who evokes and steams the songs and Trucks' liquid solos that are mercury and ether, melodic without being complex to the point of constriction.

     And Tedeschi sings like breathing, soul exhalations of doubt and need and desire.

     It is a holy thing, and they have forged a family out there. Not just with the kids and the parents on the road, but the whole 11 man band and crew. It is what the Allmans might've been long ago without the drugs and the drama, but regal and engaged.

     Popovich would've got it, liked it. Family hanging together, making it work, creating something sultry, satisfying and stirring. The very best of what can be.

     And then back awake, scanning the radio, driving I-16 to I-75 to I-24. Five hundred miles with two bursts of hail, to pay some bills, wash some clothes and go to the airport again.

     Somewhere in the blur of a 1000 miles in 24 hours, more news arrived. Bill Johnson, the twice Grammy-winning art director from Sony Nashville, a visionary Rolling Stone Art Director responsible for too many iconic pictures - including Patti Smith smudged with soot between two burning oil barrels, has passed on as well.

     Another wild creative, bon vivant, curator of love and people, a believer that the pictures had to be as potent as the music. A charming smile, a fearless sense of finding more in the crassest product.

     He was a genius, a smart ass, a mutterer, grumpy and excited. Mostly, though, he was the keeper of one of the greatest loves I've ever seen: he and his wife Cynda burned with attraction and appreciation, grace and possibilities. To see them was to know what love is.

     What love is…

     For the music, for the family, for each other. It is the currency on which everything that matters runs. Hotter, faster, deeper, more… yeah, whatever.

     Sitting shell-shocked with a French press of coffee, in a town where my values were defined, I can only wonder about how things that matter have become so transitory. I know that you can't force others to know the difference, but you can expose them and hope they recognize the gap.

     Steve Popovich did. So did Bill Johnson. They got it. And they believed it was worth fighting for. You could say it was a different time, and it was. But if their lives truly marked us, then how do you walk away when you know?

     Somewhere in the clouds that have just dumped an hour of solid rain on this slate patio beyond a picture window, I can see him in sweat pants and baggy baseball jacket laughing, thinking “Yeah, she's got it.”

     Not because he wants to be right, but because he wants people to remember… Remember the reasons why, the things that last, not even what he did. What he did is written in the books, how he lived can live on if we just refuse to accept the erosion and status quo.

     Know the difference, raise the flag. Be the standards you know, not the getting by, plastic injection-molded faux soul, pseudo-emotion pap that passes. It can be fomented via Twitter, youtube, Pandora and the rest, but it ain't built to last.

     Watching the sun come out, I consider what I know… and how strong I might be.

     While world jazz plays on the sound system, I hear a searing voice. Ronnie Dunn's power exhortation, from the chilling kid grows up country-gospel witness “I Believe.”

     “And you can't tell me all this ends/

     “With a long ride in a hearse…”

     Surely, no. Surely, no. If we live to believe we're leaving something behind, then consider the lives that have touched your's, and believe. Sad as I am, raw as I will be for a while, I do. And that, in this puddle of pain, is a pretty great truth to hang onto.