Fall River has culture, just look

You have to give the city and Mayor Edward M. Lambert, Jr. credit. They´re trying to make this town more arts and culture friendly, and they´ve been making all the right overtures. Helping the Renaissance Gallery secure its new home on Anawan Street, supporting the Narrows Festival of the Arts downtown. Appealing to the Boston media, explaining to the editors of the region´s pre-eminent newspapers that Fall River in 2001 is not the decaying, drug-ridden den of dung it has been portrayed as in decades past. It´s a place worth visiting, and really, it´s not a bad place to live.

Yet, you hear the snickers, Fall River - an arts center? Sure - and maybe we´ll come to love the new CVS on Pleasant Street the way we did the China Royal. It´s a high hurdle, for sure. New Bedford has us beat culturally, never mind Providence and Boston. Fall River doesn´t have a Pizzeria Uno or Borders Books, much less Federal Hill and Club Passim. But writing Fall River off as a cultural wasteland doesn´t jibe with the reality of the city´s Belmont Club on a Monday night. The Belmont is an odd place. It´s a bar located inside a gray, Victorian house on Franklin Street, right off North Main. There´s no indication from the street that the place is a drinking establishment at all - no flashing "Belmont Club" lights, no neon Budweiser or Guinness logos, nothing. Plus, it calls itself a "club" which hints at some sort of elite secret membership. That´s not the case, but it´s intimidating nonetheless.

Overcome these obstacles and you´ll find yourself in a cozy establishment with a mishmash of handsome dark woodwork, stained glass likenesses of the old City Hall and the old Durfee High School and sofas that have existed here long past their prime. And should you come to the Belmont past 8:00 p.m. on a Monday night, you´ll get a good sampling of Fall River´s finest acoustic music.

Sometimes the night will start out with some grunge rock kid playing the latest hit by Creed or U2 on his guitar. A Dave Matthews wanna-be might follow. Later, a petite young woman who calls herself "Joyel Moonchild" might churn out a dead-on spirited version of Janis Joplin´s "Me and Bobby McGee" and Tori Amos hits. Sometimes a trumpet player and his keyboard-playing partner will show up and perform smoky old jazz standards. Even club manager, Cliff Ponte, will get into the act playing a mix of gospel and bluegrass tunes with a ragtag group of Belmont regulars, which often includes City Council candidate Kevin Donnelly on drums. And then there is Michael Troy. Troy, a singer/songwriter, visits the Belmont on Mondays every now and then, usually leaving most of its patrons´ jaws on the floor by the tim he finishes his set. A fortysomething, Sunset Hill born, city native who now lives in Somerset, Troy plays guitar so well and writes songs of such depth that one might think he´d been playing the folk circuit all his life, or that he might even be some retired rock star or guitar god, like the ones you see on all those VH-1 specials, trying out a "new direction". In reality, he´s only been playing out since 1998, when a bout with lymphoma convinced the former mill worker/fisherman/laborer and father of four that he might want to take his longtime hobby a step further, just to see what happens. His often-autobiographical lyrics are filled with images of his hometown, like this passage from the moody "Talk Radio":

I raised two children in the south of town
Down below the hill
Wife and I put'em both through school
Working in the mill

And this from the bouncy "Fishboats":

I´m Fall River born and raised,
Between southern Mass. And the Ocean State
Standing on the shoals of the Mount Hope Bay
Shining in the sun, you´re the one

One of his most requested tracks comes from his 1998 CD "Whispers in the Wind" , an acoustic ragtime tune called "Lizzie" which is about... well, guess who:

Daddy came home early, a change in plans
Well, I got no time for alibis, he´s a suspicious man
He took of his coat, took some time to relax
She kissed his cheek
And then she gave him the axe!

He´ll sing these clever lyrics while playing guitar lines that would tie Eric Clapton´s fingers up in knots. "The guy´s a poet, man." I overheard one guy say in awe as Troy played on. He was right. And afterwards, Cliff, Joyel and the jazz guys or some other musician will joyfully conclude the night at Fall River´s most secret haven of culture.

Fall River - an arts center? The Mayor doesn´t need to attract artists to the city - with Mondays at the Belmont and Michael Troy´s performances, Fall River has true cultural treasures already.

Don Hammontree was copy editor at the Herald News when this article was published.