In the 1970's and 80's, Walt Atkison made a name for himself in the Rochester area -- and the tour stops along Interstate 90 -- as the one-man band. Using an Echoplex and a tambourine he'd kick around with his boots, Atkison played solo shows at almost every Rochester venue of the time, from the Elmwood Inn to the Wine Press and Red Creek.
"The patrons were there; everyone was there," Atkison says of the music scene. "It was always festive. It was a wonderful music town, so many just fantastic players everywhere you look."
While Atkison would regularly gig solo, he occasionally collaborated with other musicians, and in the late 70's, he met guitarist Kinloch Nelson and bassist Bernie Heveron. The three clicked well and by the early-80's, were routinely playing together, even holding down a weekly slot at the Elmwood Inn for some time. But as is usually the story, people leave town, move on to new things, and those regular shows become a thing of the past.
On Sunday, August 24, Atkison, Nelson, and Heveron will perform together at Tango Café, 35 South Washington Street. This will be the first time the musicians have publicly performed together as a trio in close to 15 years -- they have stayed in touch and have occasionally played in various pairs during that time.
"When I started working with [Nelson and Heveron], and a few others, it just opened up brand new avenues for me to write," Atkison says. "They're both such wonderful teachers as well as musicians. I was like a student band member for a lot of years."
During the Tango Café show, the trio will revisit some of the older material they played years ago as well as new material written by Atkison. The singer-songwriter recently released a new album, "Carry On."
Born and raised in Texas, Atkison picked up the harmonica when he was 8 years old, and began playing the guitar at 10. His dad would hold the harmonica for him so Atkison could play guitar and the harp together.
"He eventually made a little [harmonica] holder out of some wire," Atkison says. "He was devastated when he saw Bob Dylan doing the same thing. He thought Dylan stole his idea for a harmonica holder."
After a stint in the military following high school, Atkison settled in Rochester and began his solo career in 1970. Using the Echoplex -- a tape delay machine that looped sounds recorded live -- Atkison set out on his one-man band act.
"I may hear some conversation that it's someone's birthday or something, so I would mention their name in a song and it would loop back," Atkison says. "So everyone knew that it wasn't pre-recorded music."
"Walt almost had an orchestral approach to harp playing," Nelson says of Atkison's approach to the folk music he created. "There aren't a lot of notes you can do on a harmonica, but he would find ways to max out on them."
Atkison met Nelson and Heveron separately during the late 70's.
"New Year's Eve going into 1980, I was invited to play with [Atkison] at Elmwood Inn," Heveron says. "Kinloch had been playing with him, by then, for a little bit too. The three of us ended up getting a regular Wednesday night gig at Elmwood and played it for quite a while. That's when it all took off. Walt had his singer-songwriter, one-man band going on, but he extended his gig to Kinloch and I to experiment and go wild. He gave us lots of leeway and lots of room for improvisation."
Heveron describes how one night the three were going to dive into the Harry Nilsson song "Coconut," but after Heveron started out the bass riff, Atkison experimented with the track. The jam turned into "A Groove & A Rut," which became a popular song for the trio.
Atkison eventually moved out of Rochester in 1998. He now lives in North Carolina and continues to record and perform. All three musicians express their excitement to perform together again.
"That's the beauty of their abilities," Atkison says about picking up old songs again. "It's nice to just launch into a song, and they just pick it up and have beautiful parts."