Barbecue & blues

Intimate and unpretentious, Fat Matt’s Rib Shack proves it’s the little club that could last a decade and keep on thriving

The word is “vibe,” a sense of atmosphere, a real but intangible emanation of spirit. It’s a word often used by local blues musicians and fans to describe the success of Fat Matt’s Rib Shack, the tiny Midtown blues/beer/barbecue restaurant that celebrates its 10th anniversary this month.

To mark the occasion, Fat Matt’s is hosting a musical celebration Sept. 14-16, featuring a number of its regular bands. The party begins Thurs., Sept. 14, at 7 p.m., with performances by Chicken Shack and the Breeze Kings. The Chicken Shack show includes a return appearance by Felix Reyes, who fronted that band, as well as Felix and the Cats, before moving to Florida several years ago. Reyes now lives in Chicago.

The Friday and Saturday shows feature six bands each night and get underway at 6 p.m. Friday’s lineup consists of the Blues Barons, Frankie’s Blues Mission, Side Bar, Fontaine Blues, Little Joey’s Jumpin’ Jive and Big Royal & the Revue; Saturday’s lineup features Chilly Willy, Code Blue, Fatt Bottom, Ron Cooley & the Hard Times, Tommy Preston and Blues Cat. All of the performances for the week of Sept. 11-17, including those by Fat Matt’s regular weeknight bands (including Tuesday night regulars Rough Draft, of which I am the bandleader), will be recorded for a live CD. Fat Matt’s released a similar CD collection, Down at the Rib Shack, in 1992, to mark its second anniversary.

The restaurant came into existence in 1990 after Matt Harper (who is not fat, by the way) left his job selling lumber for Georgia-Pacific and developed the Fat Matt’s concept with guidance from restaurateur/musician brother Clay Harper. The location previously was a Mr. Ching restaurant and before that a longtime Dunkin’ Donuts.

On paper, the location shouldn’t work as a music venue, “because it’s a little glass box, not really acoustically friendly,” says Kevin Jennings, who books bands for Fat Matt’s and is a musician himself. “But the smell of the place, the atmosphere, the staff, make it special. I love playing there.”

Almost from the outset, Fat Matt’s has featured nightly performances by local blues bands, which play for tips, food, beer and — most importantly — the opportunity to entertain an audience. In doing so, particularly early on, the restaurant helped create what is now the Atlanta blues scene for local performers, thanks to its open-door booking approach (“You’ve got to be a blues band, nothing more, nothing less ... that’s the only requirement,” Jennings says) and its infamous (and now defunct) Wednesday night jam sessions. It also benefited from the early efforts of such enterprising performers as Ju Ju Root bandleader Stoney Brooks, who hosted many of those jams and helped unite local players through his early ’90s newsletter, Blues Ink.

The timing was right. “Blind Willie’s and Blues Harbor were running the big [national acts] through, but nobody was doing the locals, not on this side of town. It seemed like a niche that needed to be filled,” Harper recalls.

In fact, the need was such that local players leaped at the opportunity to perform on the small stage for a small audience (46-seat capacity inside, plus 28 outside) whose main interest might actually be barbecue, not blues. And they do it all for virtually no money. “Some things you do for money, some things you do for your soul,” says Reyes, in a phone interview from his Chicago residence. “Fat Matt’s is a soul gig. It’s an artistic gig. You can go in there and do what you want to do.”

That informality, plus the physical closeness of audience and performer, lends Fat Matt’s much of its charm, adds Scott Callison, drummer for Tinsley Ellis and a veteran of hundreds of Fat Matt’s gigs for various bands. “It’s casual, like playing on your porch,” Callison says. “The line between the band and the audience goes away, whereas [in larger venues] the line is very much established and the audience is saying, ‘Do something for me,’ instead of, ‘Do something with me.’”

That last point is, in fact, a literal one. It’s not at all uncommon for audience members to join the band onstage to sing a couple of tunes. Sometimes, the guests are talented local or national musicians, but just as often (we hope) they’re talented amateurs who are simply overwhelmed by the spirit of the moment. During the latter stages of a recent Saturday night show my band played at Fat Matt’s, a well-dressed black man walked in with an instrument case, unpacked and assembled his trombone and sat near the stage waiting for his cue. We’d never seen him before, but we called him up, mid-song, just in time for a solo. He was very talented, and his older sister, a capable vocalist, also joined us onstage. After playing the remainder of the set and closing the show with us, they left quietly as we began packing up. We never even learned their names.

Such an intimate setting offers virtually instantaneous feedback for performers, both in audience applause and in contributions to the tip jar, a battered, purple-painted gallon container that probably once held mayonnaise. While some bands grouse at the prospect of playing for tips, the secret is in “how you interact with the audience,” says Royal Joiner, vocalist/keyboardist of Big Royal & the Revue. “If you’re having a good time, they’re going to have a good time as well, and they’re going to express their appreciation.”

The chemistry between performer and audience is bolstered by the restaurant’s high recognition with local hotel concierges, who recommend the venue to enthusiastic conventioneers and other travelers who are eager for a taste of blues, ribs and Southern culture. “Just about every concierge in the city has been a supporter, and I have a great volume of gratitude toward them,” Harper says.

These out-of-town fans can be remarkably loyal. Over the years, musicians have gotten to know countless audience members whose annual or bi-annual visits to Atlanta always include a stop at Fat Matt’s.

Another key aspect to Fat Matt’s success is the early start-time for music — typically, between 7:30 and 8:30 p.m. — which makes local blues shows accessible to families and others who can’t manage late-night hours, and to band members with day jobs. “It’s a nice, non-smoky, non-drunken atmosphere to hear blues,” says Jon Liebman, leader of the Electromatics, who perform at Fat Matt’s on Wednesdays. Matt’s has helped strengthen local bands such as his, Liebman adds, by providing a regular performance venue and a place to get organized musically, to promote the band and to bring together talented players.

“It’s been a big melting pot for musicians,” Harper says, sitting in his cramped office, the aroma of racks of freshly cooked ribs floating in from the kitchen. “They’ve met here, formed bands, split up, formed other bands.” He holds up a list of the 150-plus groups that have played there. “That’s a big family there. That’s what I’m proudest of, being the facility where artists meet and exchange creative ideas and come up with new projects.”

Fat Matt’s 10th Anniversary Party is held Sept. 14-16. Fat Matt’s is located at 1811 Piedmont Avenue; call 404-607-1622 for more information.