Michael Stanley fans who think his bands sound great on stage should thank Dan Montecalvo.
The 1971 Warren Western Reserve High School graduate has been Stanley's sound engineer for 37 years, dating back to the early days of the Michael Stanley Band, and he's remained behind the sound board through Stanley's various solo projects, with the Ghost Poets and for Midlife Chryslers and with Michael Stanley and the Resonators, who will perform Saturday at Packard Music Hall.
With the possible exception of drummer Tommy Dobeck, Montecalvo has been a part of more Stanley concerts than anyone except the frontman himself. And just because he's not up on stage basking in the applause after the final encore, it doesn't diminish how vital his role is.
File photo by R. Michael Semple
Michael Stanley performs in 2012 at the Warren Community Amphitheatre.
"That's as important as anything on stage," Stanley said. "We can sound great on stage but if the guy bringing it to the crowd isn't doing his job, it's going to sound horrible. We don't really know what we sound like during the show. We can't go out there and experience it. That's why he's such a big factor."
Before becoming a part of the Michael Stanley Band in 1976, Montecalvo was working for a sound and lighting company in Youngstown. Growing up in Warren, he initially was drawn to performing but he soon found himself working on the technical side.
"I wanted to play guitar when I was really young, but I was the guy who knew how to solder wires together, the guy who knew how to fix things, so that automatically made me the engineer instead of the musician," he said.
In a business where everybody knows everybody, Stanley's bass player, Daniel Pecchio, and road manager, Jim Soffos, both had the same roles with Youngstown's Glass Harp. And Montecalvo's boss at the sound company was Pecchio's brother-in-law and Glass Harp's former sound engineer.
Soffos recommended him to Stanley, and Montecalvo became part of the team between the "Ladies Choice" and "Stagepass" albums.
Back then, working in the music business would draw questions of "When are you going to get a real job?" from older folks, Montecalvo said. But as the Mahoning Valley dealt with steel mill closings and layoffs, Montecalvo had a steady gig.
"From 1976 to 1987, I was on salary," he said. "Michael treated this whole thing as a business. All the band members, all the crew, he kept everybody paid. He wanted to keep it as a family, keep everyone together, so he kept us working and kept us paid."
"It was a family, sometimes a dysfunctional family, but a family," Stanley said in a separate interview. "When I found people I wanted to work with, I wanted them to be able to stay."
During that time, MSB was the biggest band in Cleveland, and songs like "He Can't Love You" and "My Town" cracked the top 40 nationally. It set attendance records at Richfield Coliseum and Blossom Music Center, and the band played 12 sold-out shows at the Front Row Theatre when MSB called it quits as a full-time entity.
"People think of us as a regional band, but we did a lot of touring back then as an opening act - Foreigner, Journey, the Doobie Brothers. And all of the Midwest bands - Cheap Trick, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Ted Nugent," Montecalvo said. "We did every major city in the country at least five times. We'd do three, four arenas a week and in between we might throw in our own club dates."
Montecalvo and the rest of the crew became known as "the Mels," an inside joke that started when the band was playing at the Palace Theatre and a guy from the Cleveland stagehands' union insisted on calling everyone "Mo." Pat Scardina, who was in charge of the monitors, changed it to "Mel" and it became a running gag. In the liner notes to the band's albums, crew members are listed as Dan "Mel" Montecalvo, Pat "Mel" Scardina, etc.
Montecalvo had another role with the band. The former yearbook photographer at Western Reserve saw several of his photos used as covers, back covers and inner sleeve illustrations for MSB albums, and it was his shot of the band that appeared on the cover of Cashbox magazine.
Instead of going on the road for months at a time, the Resonators now play about 10 to 12 shows a year, and Stanley's blues-rock cover band the Midlife Chryslers play about once a month. Montecalvo now works for the sound manufacturing company TASCAM, doing trade shows and servicing its high-end broadcast equipment. But when Stanley had a gig, Montecalvo is behind the board.
Much of Montecalvo's work for a concert takes place long before the band takes the stage. He contacts the venue ahead of time to to determine what sound and lighting equipment is on hand at the venue, and then they adjust accordingly.
In 37 years, he has gone from sound boards that control just volume, bass and treble to elaborate digital boards.
"It's like 'Star Trek,'" he said. "You can control every nuance of the tonal quality. You can add effects. These mixing consoles grew to be giant, 5 to 6 feet long and have 48 inputs. Now they're one third the size and have five times the inputs because it's all digital and all in layers."
Different sound engineers and bands have different preferences. Steely Dan and the Rolling Stones still use analog sound boards, Montecalvo said, while acts like Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers use the latest and greatest digital technology. Montecalvo doesn't have a problem with the new technology, although he said it's easier to work with the older boards, where everything is right in front of him, because he's not doing it every night anymore.
On a show day, Montecalvo regularly works a 14-hour day, arriving at the venue late morning in order to have every ready for the mid-afternoon soundcheck and not leaving until a couple hours after the show.
"I put a microphone on every vocal, every instrument," he said. "Anything that makes any noise on stage, I put a microphone on it."
Montecalvo and the rest of the crew also prepare for any technical glitches. There's extra equipment on hand if anything stops working, like this summer at Cain Park in Cleveland Heights when guitar player Marc Lee Shannon's amplifier cut out minutes before showtime. And he keeps a backup channel on the sound board open at all times for Stanley's microphone, so if any problem arises with the sound, it can be fixed with a quick switch instead of a long delay.
"Dan knows what he's doing," Stanley said. "He always has. He's just like a musician; he tries to get better every show. Stages sound very different, but not as different as halls do. He has to deal with more variables than we do. It's a big undertaking, and there's no second chances."