Travelin' blues

Slim Fatz finds musical home in Atlanta

At age 29, guitarist/singer/songwriter Slim Fatz left his native New York in search of a place that was less hectic, less expensive, less cold and more friendly.

An avid camper and boater, he'd noticed on camping excursions that if he drove south to New Jersey or Philadelphia, people were nicer and the toll fares cheaper than if he drove north. With that in mind, Fatz "packed his canoe, got in his car and drove south."

That was about 12 years ago. When his money ran out, Fatz was in North Carolina, and he settled in the beautiful mountain town of Boone, where he landed a few music gigs in addition to doing handyman work and gardening. After three years or so, he was ready to move again. Fatz tried Memphis, got mugged, went back to North Carolina and then chose Atlanta.

Fatz, 41, has found a musical home in the Atlanta area. He has steady work as a musician, including a weekly gig at Darwin's in Marietta. He released his first CD, Hard Time Ago, last year, and expects to have a second self-titled CD on the street in July. He also has two cuts on the just-released compilation CD, WRFG Presents: The First Annual Back Porch Blues Festival, recorded live at Darwin's last summer.

In addition to performing at Darwin's, Fatz has regular Thursday and Friday gigs at Bridgetown Grill, and has played venues as disparate as Music Midtown and the elegant Swan House. However, the Marietta blues room is one of his favorite performance spots.

"I love playing at Darwin's because I can get away with adult jokes, humor. I can play more aggressive Delta blues material, and sing more aggressively. I enjoy that gig a lot," Fatz says.

The guitarist, who began playing folk music as a teen, was smitten with acoustic blues after seeing Taj Mahal play a solo gig in New York in the late '70s.

"It just blew me away," Fatz recalls. "He had total command of the audience, and he definitely wasn't playing folk music. It was early Delta blues. That's when I figured out about open tuning (in which the guitar is tuned to an open chord, such as E major or A major) and how to play slide guitar. I was trying to do that same kind of material prior to seeing Taj, but having little success with it. After seeing the show, I got into open tuning and kind of ran with it."

Fatz sought out the recordings of such Delta blues masters as Son House, Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines, became committed to performing in open tunings and hasn't looked back.

Prior to discovering acoustic blues and the use of open tunings, Fatz says he found most electric blues to be repetitive, with an emphasis on "guitar acrobatics" that didn't fit his style.

"That was never really my forte," Fatz says. "That stuff works with a band, but it doesn't really work as a soloist. But the older Delta blues works really well on its own."

Fatz undercuts his roiling brand of acoustic blues with an offbeat wit and novel percussion. Until recently, he usually was accompanied by Donnie McCormick, aka Donnie Mac, who played an extraordinarily modified chicken coop. (No description of this will do it justice, unfortunately.) However, McCormick is recovering from a heart attack he suffered a couple of months ago, and these days Fatz says his girlfriend — identified only as "The Sheriff" — assists, playing rhythm on a sawhorse. The make-shift instrument features a sheet of plywood mounted on the side, for purposes of drumming, and a notched top, which can be played with a rake effect.

It's all part of Fatz's effort to build his own identity within the framework of acoustic blues, and effort that he says carries over into his upcoming CD.

"I feel strong as a songwriter and as a Delta player," Fatz says, "but I don't want to repeat or rip off blues songs, so it [will feature] very different song arrangements than typical blues."

In this case, very different, indeed, and thankfully so.

Slim Fatz performs Tues., May 29, and then every Monday starting in June at Darwin's in Marietta. For more information, call 770-578-6872 or visit www.darwinsblues.com. For more information on Fatz, visit www.secondheaven.com/slimfatzbg.htm.

This column is a weekly feature covering music outside the Perimeter. E-mail or mail "outside" music news to Bryan Powell, 830 Josh Lane, Lawrenceville, GA 30045.