MUSIC REVIEW- Close quarters: Wrapped in intimacy at Atomic

Atomic Burrito's layout lends itself to the easy flow of people in and out of the establishment. The design is flawless. I have tested it myself. I have, on many occasions, gone to Atomic during peak hours (lunch) and watched the line of people ushered efficiently along the food bar.

But that daytime design is not so efficient when a band packs into the front window of the place and a small PA system is set up. Let's face it; Atomic is a cramp job in the evenings when a band plays. God forbid that band has any sort of following. Thirty-five to forty people can make the room uncomfortable fast.

And yet, bands still perform there, and people still regularly pack in for shows. There must be something else that draws people to Atomic Burrito. I sat and pondered this for a while.

Then it dawned on me. Although the dimensions of the room may be physically constricting, the atmosphere is quite liberating for a musician. The vibe is so laid back. Who can be uptight in a place where musicians can play whatever they want, however they want? This results in some strange things– some cool and some obnoxious– but seldom anything flat-out boring.

The fact is, if you want to see a group perform a no holds barred set, a good place to see them is Atomic Burrito. Corey Harris brought his band the 5X5 through Atomic last Thursday, March 23. It was the second of three small-venue shows here in Charlottesville. Joining him during this run was guitarist Mohamed Kouyate from Guinea.

The set started off slow, with a disjointed rendition of "Sissy Strut" to warm things up. The song seemed a bit forced and uncomfortable, but as the group settled in, a whole world began to open up. The vibe switched from throwback funk/soul to West African instrumentals and percussive blues pieces. When in that mode, everything clicked perfectly in time.

Mohamed Kouyate added a feel to Corey's music that I have never encountered before. His light rhythmic picking unlocked a feeling I never knew was missing but definitely needed to be there. The band traded off what seemed like a Kouyate tune for a Corey tune, all evening long.

About a quarter of the way into the show, DJ Williams, who had been sitting in the audience for some time, made his way to the front to sit in with the band. I've long professed my undying love for DJ William's guitar prowess, and tonight he showed why. He tastefully worked into a seven-to-eight-minute groove like he belonged in the band. Unfortunately, he stuck around for only one song.

My biggest gripe of the night had to do with the simple, yet highly ineffective PA Corey's vocal mic was plugged into. Although I could hear the melody of his voice just fine, many of his words were garbled in the inadequate system. Corey belted, nevertheless, as fiercely as he could over the drums, bass, and percussion. The rawness of the evening was its beauty.

Harris has played bigger and better-suited places than Atomic Burrito hundreds of time in his career. He and his band didn't play Atomic because they had to; they did it because they wanted to. The packed-in crowd was grateful for the gesture of performing in such an intimate venue. Until next time, I'll be looking for a Mohamed Kouyate solo record or munching a fat grilled chicken burrito from Atomic.