Bruce Dalzell - The Sound of One Fan Clapping
 
CD Review by T.S. Phillips
 
 

In recent years I have sought out CDs by regional artists who make great music, but who do not have the benefits of major record deals and distribution. I have posted reviews of some of it. But it is with particular pleasure that I tell you about my latest find, or rediscovery would be more accurate a term.

 

When at Ohio University a in the 1980s I spent an evening in a small, downstairs restaurant called the Hobbit House, complete with a Tom Bombadil salad and memorial booth dedicated to one Major Butts, who went down on the Titanic. There I witnessed the performance of a trio of guitar players and spent the remainder of my college and graduate school years going to hear their particular blend of three-part harmonies take shape in various folk and rock standards, as well as impressive original songs. Only a few years older than I, they reigned over the Athens, Ohio music scene billed as the Kings of Hollywood and were much the envy of us open mic strummers. Scott Minar had one of those high, rich voices we all wish we could find in our own throats. Craig Goodwin, with his teen idol good looks and clear tenor, played breathtaking leads and remains the best guitarist I have ever known personally. Bruce Dalzell fit in and around the other two with his mellow voice, busy finger picks and soon became one of my all-time favorite songwriters. Then I moved away to New York City just about the time they too went their separate ways. I have not heard of them since.

 

That is, until I stumbled on the website athensmusician.net, which promotes live music in Athens. There listed was Bruce Dalzell along with a link where one might purchase his CD “The Sound of One Fan Clapping”. My copy arrived a few days later.
 
This is a great CD. It features 14 songs and instrumentals and there is not a bad cut among them. As a collection of songs it is an album in the true sense of the word, with themes explored in different directions but adding up to a single point of view. I cannot recommended it enough to anyone who has a like of acoustic guitar-oriented music focusing on imaginative, tuneful storytelling backed by impressive fingerpicking that is often intricate without ever being superfluously busy or distracting. A liner note reads “If you don’t like this album, I had no help. If you do like it, I did it myself.” It is hard to imagine someone qualifying for the former.

 

There is a wisp of the tropical in the rhythms of the first number, Local Boys, even if the largest body of water mentioned would seem to be the Ohio River. The syncopated thump of the upright bass and insect-like shake of sand in a shell pop up under the opening guitar chords, which skip and shimmy across the song while an unhurried voice laments the fact that a particular waitress won’t date “local boys.” This is a quick sketch of life spent as the permanent resident of a transient college town, where a man can weather the years as countless friends and faces come and go and even those one grew up with have moved off to the wider world. In the second verse, an organ raises a slight shiver when he hears from one such friend and learns that “Shaky Jim met Jesus in a burnin’ Chevrolet. I guess I’m all that’s left of local boys.”

 

With each verse marking a bittersweet current event, the nostalgic chorus tells of less complicated times:

 

Way down by the riverside
Coal trains rush right by
We use to go down there with all our high school beauty queens
And throw our empty bottles in the dark, rolling waters
Wishing we’d go floatin’ with ‘em
Down to New Orleans

 

Simply put, the second song, I Am Alive (Song for Carlotta), is beautiful. Sparse and ringing with just a single, acoustic guitar, it begins as an instrumental refrain that also repeats after each verse. The first stanza seeming to encapsulate the sentiment and philosophy behind Dalzell’s music and perhaps his life.

 

If I had wings
And a wide open sky
I would rest on the wind
Like a prayer in flight
With a smile on my lips
A tear in my eye
A song in my heart
I am alive

 

It is a poignant tear and a smile and a song that finds its inspiration in the hearts of other people he has known. That same feeling is reflected throughout the album, which features two interlaced themes. The first being that of a man who is now reflecting with fondness upon a life spent where he was raised, but confessing a tinge of regret as he ponders untraveled roads. The Parade is just such a song, where the singer recounts a lost youth spent cruising the circuit of a small, Midwestern town. In it we find the universal recognition; what meant so much to us back then still holds meaning, but only to ourselves.

 

Now I drive down Main Street with my son on my lap
The stories of my youth only make him nap
Why should he care how legends are made
Hell, when I was sixteen I was the parade

We were elegant hoodlums
We were rednecks with grace
We had no desire to run anyone’s race
Too cool for school, made in the shade
And every Saturday night
We led the parade

 

As Tennessee Williams put it, “The taste is always sweetest as the wine dwindles in the glass.” And it is easy to savor our remembered youth as we contemplate what time might be left us. Just as it is illuminating to recall someone a quarter century ago and now see how he has matured as a man, as a guitarist and most noticeably as a songwriter. This is most evident in the songs representing the second theme, which concerns the people in his life who provide him the spiritual fuel to keep going down the path he has chosen. These, of course, include the love of his life and the family they have raised together. It is a love to be envied as it remains as fresh and alive as when he was young and just discovering such lofty and weighted emotions.

 

Two such songs appear in tandem. Standing Here With You is an animated number that could easily work well with a large band, but is here presented with a lone guitar. It features some of the liveliest playing on the CD, made all the more impressive when the resulting applause reveals that it was recorded live on stage. The second piece is more laid back but no less buoyed by infectious licks on a solo guitar that typically play out as an isolated bass note followed by a variety of sustained, gliding or hammered-on phrases across the mids and treble strings. It basically shows how various sources of illumination pale in comparison to The Light Around You.

 

Is it the light of the train on the track where I am tied?
Is it the sun going down on the Great Divide?
Is it the footlights of my great, Greek tragedy?
The lonely beacon standing silent beside the sea?
This kind of candle power, no carbon arc will do
The light around you

 

Is it the ghostly shroud ‘round a fog-bound street lamp?
Is it a full moon shining on a rowdy hobo camp?
Is it the buzzing blue neon name of beer?
I am frozen in my tracks like a frighten deer
I flushed my $40 sunglasses down the loo
Love that light around you

 

And then we come to Small Town Affair, a piece of storytelling that could have appeared alongside the work of any number of well known recording artists. With a guitar strumming in three-quarter time and the occasional help of a mandolin and sad but silly strains from a recorder or penny whistle, Bruce Dalzell weaves the tale of a doomed love affair between a middle-aged waitress and a married mechanic who had “a magic touch with those English sports cars”. After years of discrete romance, known but ignored by everyone in town, it ends with the pull of a trigger. Like all well-wrought tragedies, one is compelled to revisit it again and again despite the painful subject matter.

 

I still include a couple Bruce Dalzell songs in my repertoire. They are great songs, but many of these new ones have an even greater depth to them that can only come with wisdom and maturity. The compassionate revelry is still there but now often enhanced with profound reasons to celebrate or sculpted by the winds of adult tribulations and responsibility. No place is this more evident then in Completion, a remarkable piece of songcraft.

 

With lyrics more cryptic than the other selections, it is hard to tell who just exactly this love song was written for. But the evocative words seem to divulge a man struck by the enormity of just how precious a life lived in peace really is in a world where young sons and daughters are taken off to questionable wars, never to return, or the savagery raging in the world might sweep across one’s own back yard without warning. The fact the song was written years before the terrorist attacks of 2001 makes it all the more impressive. It also shows a man dealing with the realization that so much of his own happiness is bound up in the welfare and love of those he holds most dear and might one day have to live without. I think it worth quoting in its entirety.

 

Lay your hand upon my head
And still my heart’s violence
Your words are echoing bells
Ringing clear my gun’s silence
I haven’t the faith to bow down
Without you

 

From the seeds of power it comes
When the rattling of sabers starts
Is it the sound of distant drums
Or the beating of my fearful heart
I haven’t the courage to stand up
Without you

 

Down on the sad side of town
Where the truth is never quite clear
And the comfort of blindness is found
For a price much too dear
I haven’t the strength to change things
Without you

 

And I might be complete
I just don’t want to know
Without you

 

Anxious days fly by full tilt
And glorious children with them
Is the future I have built
A place or a prison
I’m not large enough to let go
Without you

 

Lay your hand upon my head
And still my heart’s violence
Your words are echoing bells
Ringing clear my gun's silence

 

As with all songs, the words of Completion do not convey as much feeling without the music or when Bruce Dalzell gives a voice to them that rises and falls effortlessly, infusing them with living emotion. It is a voice that is friendly and persuasive and also exhibits a melodious resonance that makes all of his songs sound like they are lower in pitch then they turn out to be when one tries to sing along. The music finds the ideal combination of pace and arrangement, often evoking the appropriate emotional weight or whimsy in the music before the first word is even sung. In Completion it is a simple fingerpicking pattern in 3/4 time that results in a pastoral and hypotonic tapestry of bass notes and chimes. The first instance of an electric guitar on the entire album comes in on the break, echoing and distant, playing slender, sustained lines that bring to mind a muted English horn.

 

In other instances he adds in extra instruments that only serve to enhance and support the stories told. This is very well done indeed on Tocoi Light, which makes good use of a banjo and mandolin. The song proves a departure from the rest of the album by assuming the voice of woman from Appalachia’s coal country who has never found anything to match the land that she loves. It would make a perfect vehicle for Alison Kraus. But Sara Watkins might be even better at it, since the arrangement already fits those of Nickel Creek.

 

There are also three solo guitar instrumentals on the CD. Grady’s Rag is a lazy Sunday afternoon kind of a tune with a slow, ragtime aura. The County Fair, with its staccato, sliding chords falling down the neck into arpeggios and alternate thumb fingerpicking would be right at home on any of those Windham Hill or Narada fingerstyle guitar compilations. The album ends with the short instrumental Corina’s Little Finger, a delicate piece of music and a nice closing theme for a satisfying artistic effort.


Where does all this music fit in the greater cultural picture? Steve Goodman, Harry Chapin, Sean Colvin, Randy Newman, John Prine, Greg Brown, Jimmy Buffet, a young Tom Waits, Michael Smith or even Michael Franks? I can’t really say this album sounds much like any of those people’s music. But I can say that every one of them would find something to like on The Sound of One Fan Clapping. If you think you might too, you can buy a copy at:
 

 

 

After allowing The Sound of One Fan Clapping to sink in a while, I wrote Bruce a letter. I received a nice reply via email and, shortly thereafter, two more recent CDs in the mail entitled Do It Yourself and Brucie’s Christmas Album. He has since released a new album, My Athens Past that was recorded for the Athens Historical Society.

 

Bruce Dalzell plays all of the instruments on The Sound of One Fan Clapping. His primary guitar was a Taylor 510, which has now gone off with his son, Harlen and has since been replaced by a 1970 Martin D-18. The liner notes on Do It Yourself also mentions a borrowed Takamine and Collings.

 

tsp, nyc
 
Revised: 02.08.11