Chet Atkins doesn’t get called “the Country Gentleman” much anymore, but the nickname he used through the ’50s and ’60s still perfectly describes his musical style. At his current series of Monday-night performances at Caffé Milano, polite (if intricate) finger-picking reigns, with an emphasis on tasteful melodies and simple rhythms. In a world of technical flash, ear-damaging volume, and look-at-me showboats, Atkins remains in service of the song.
He’s also a country picker through and through, even if his song selection on a recent evening incorporated a Hawaiian tune (“Pu, Uana Hulu”), pop standards (“Bye Bye Blackbird”), Western swing (“Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”), rockin’ R&B (“I Got a Woman”), and South African folk (“Wimmoweh”). As complex as his note progressions can be, he never stretches into the screaming tones or aggressive phrasing of the post-rock musical era. There’s no hammering of the guitar neck, no high-speed flurry of eighth-notes, no odd tunings. The emphasis is on beauty and melody, and he stays unerringly focused on the tune. His gentlemanly grace makes everything look easy, even if his interweaving of rhythmic lines and single-note chords allows him to do the work of two guitarists.
“I could never be a rock ’n’ roller,” Atkins said at one point. “I never know what to do with my feet.” He probably meant he doesn’t bounce around or dancebut he could have been referring to his lack of pedals and gadgets. Early in the set, Atkins did make use of a computerized sequencer on one song, nonchalantly recording a rhythmic line from his electric guitar, then playing sweet melodies off the line as the loop repeated. Beyond that, his guitar work was refreshingly free of effects.
Atkins would be the first to admit that his performances aren’t big on surprises, but that doesn’t mean they’re predictable. His Caffé Milano shows have been highlighted by the presence of some unannounced guests, and his touring band provides able backing: Guitarist Pat Bergeson has proven to be a particular treat, his elegant electric guitar adding an occasional spark of string-bending excitement amid all the middle-brow elegance. Guitarist Paul Yandell mirrors Atkins’ style on his rhythms and leads, while bassist Johnny Jackson and drummer Randy Hauser keep the rhythms simple and elementary.
On the Monday I attended, guest Shelby Lynne provided the night’s most moving moment with a moody reading of “My Funny Valentine.” Dedicating the song “to my mama and daddy, for some reason,” Lynne gave a subtly dynamic rendition of the classic ballad, progressing from burnished, slurred low notes to a carefully enunciated, wide-open Broadway ending that was dramatic yet perfectly controlled. It brought down the house, and rightfully so: A vocal powerhouse, Lynne has progressed steadily since releasing her first recordings in 1989 at the age of 20. She has recently proven to be a remarkable singer of swing tunes but has occasionally stepped out of her league when trying out jazz numbers. Her guest spot with Atkins, however, suggested that she has matured to the point where she’s ready to take on the most difficult of pop stylings.
Atkins later brought up acoustic guitarist Leo Kottke, calling him “the eighth-note kid.” Kottke showed why with a display of furious dexterity on an urbane pop tune. Rather than duet, Atkins stood in a corner and watched, smiling his appreciation as he watched Kottke’s fingers fly.
The show sold out, as it had the previous week, proving that Atkins can draw, even when he’s playing on a Monday night with a high cover charge. The crowd reaction was ecstatic and worshipful, with Atkins’ every move drawing applause, his every quip drawing howls of laughter.
For those not enamored of masterful guitar tones or sweet melodies, though, an evening of Atkins can prove as boring as listening to a carnival ride. Also, in Caffé Milano’s quest to squeeze as many patrons as possible into the high-priced show, the club has been cramming some customers into uncomfortably tight spaces. On the night I attended, many people seated with their backs to the stage found it difficult to turn around to see the show. And sitting on the left aisle leading up to the stage proved especially cumbersome. All night long, waiters and customers heading to the rest rooms stepped on toes and roughly bumped those positioned next to the narrow walkway.
My companion got saddled with what seemed like the worst seat in the house. We were situated on the dubious aisle as well as next to a stairway leading to a raised portion of the restaurant. Club management stuck two additional seats in front of the stairs, meaning that the jutting spires of the chairs were flush against my companion’s seat, which faced away from the stage. She couldn’t turn an inch, and if she swiveled her body, it put her legs further into the aisle. As it was, she sat with her arms and legs cramped together and her head turned at a sharp angleall so she could watch the performance on a television monitor. My tip: request seats on the right side of the restaurant; ask to face the stage and get as far from the rest rooms as possibleor wear steel-toed shoes and kneepads.
Dinner is required for those with reservations, and to ensure a ticket for a performance, a reservation must be made. When club owner Pino Squillace prepared to introduce Atkins, he said he hoped everyone had enjoyed their meal. A good portion of the room had indeed finished, and plates were noisily being removed. But it would be a good eight songs and 30 minutes into the show before our food arrived. The waiter repeatedly apologized for the delays, citing the difficulty of serving a large crowd that arrives at about the same time.
Of course, these are problems the restaurant can work out with time. Atkins and Caffe Milano should be applauded for bringing more star power to Nashville’s nightclub scene. It’s an odd irony that the internationally recognized home of country music features so few performances by stars with established names. Even though the live music offerings in Music City USA have increased in recent years, few are by names any country music fan would recognize. That’s a shame, but maybe the popularity of Atkins’ appearances will help change that.
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