By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
"Catfish and the blues were born together," declares L.R. "T.C." Deere, owner of the five-location Top Cat seafood restaurant chain. A bit incongruous behind the cash register of his downtown location (505 N. Griffin, right across from the bus station) in his sharply creased shirt, necktie, and braces, Deere is the man who, about two years ago, introduced lunchtime live music to the restaurant.
Now scheduled every Wednesday, the midday blues break at the Top Cat is a welcome change from the rope-a-dope regularity that gradually infects most lunchtimes. Longtime local blues fixture Lou Hampton leads a band of surprising competence through two and a half hours of standards and favorites, starting at 11:30 a.m. It gets a bit loud at times--the tables directly in front of the corner where the band sets up seem to fill last--but the Top Cat is a scene unlike any other. A feeling of familiarity pervades, with customers greeting servers and each other by name and vice-versa. People dance, Hampton flirts with female customers who catch his eye, Deere scoots out from behind his cash register to tinkle out an off-key riff over the keyboard player's shoulder, and waitress Debie Babcock may even get up and belt out a song or two.
"It's the perfect job for me," says Babcock, who sings around town with the band Dallas Heat and started working at the Top Cat a year ago. "It's almost all regulars. The people who are there are usually there a couple times a week. People bring the whole office over for birthdays, stuff like that, and we just have a really big time of it.
"It's better in the summer, because of the weather," explains Babcock, noting that on cold, rainy or otherwise inclement days customers--most of whom walk--stay inside and the band stays home. Regardless of season, however, "it's a world unto itself."
Food at the Top Cat is your basic fried fare--catfish and shrimp dinners and po' boys--done simply but with attention to quality. "We're loose and casual here," says Deere, who refers to his establishments as "joints," a term that makes many restaurateurs bristle. "We're not trying to impress anybody. We're here to generate business by giving Mr. and Mrs. Public what they don't have--live entertainment in the afternoon--and have a good time doing it," he says, citing historical precedent to support his mission: "I think that I'm the first guy since Jack Ruby to offer live entertainment at lunch."
Although singer Rose Adams often shares the stage with Hampton, Deere knows that the compact, nattily attired frontman is at the center of Wednesday's success. The two met over a decade ago in the old South Dallas nightspot the Crest Club. "He's a great artist," Deere says. "He lives to sing--I think that's God's appointment to Lou--but he's also easy to get along with and knows what business is about. He knows about business, but he's just as happy singing to four people as 400."
As mentioned above, on cold or wet days you should call the Top Cat to be sure that the band will be playing. Debie Babcock will be performing with Dallas Heat on Saturday, December 27, at the Hole in the Wall. Their latest album is this year's Raw Heat.
Recent aimless strolling through Deep Ellum revealed an ever-improving Buck Jones performing at the Dark Room. Their ensemble sound is continuing to come together, a nice whoosh of neo-pyschedelic mood-churn augmented by a nifty liquid slide show. Frontman Burette Douglas reports that the band is getting ready for another foray to the west coast...After Buck Jones packed up their amps and quit the stage, it was time for the Hon. Jeff Liles and cottonmouth, tx. Liles is successfully breaking away from the early Cottonmouth material he has seemingly been doing forever--a feeling he more than shares--and the band is more supple and integrated than ever, coming off more like a valid and exciting sonic experiment than a bunch of neo-beat goofery...
At last week's must-see show by Stereolab, One Ton Record's Aden Holt confirmed that he had quit his day job, the better to focus on his label and the bands thereon. "January will be a big month for us," Holt confided with a gleam in his eye...Also at Stereolab was a dapper J. Bone Cro, who said that all was well with his band Jaloppy and associated label Womb Tunes. Cro explained that he had to put everything into his record store, Bonedaddy's, after he assumed ownership of the enterprise. Like Holt, Cro promises big things for '98 with a sly smile...
Transona Five will be at the Orbit Room Saturday, December 20, and at the Barley House on Friday, December 26...Original alt-country act Hank & Patsy will reunite December 20 at the Bar of Soap...Frognot reports that their Welcome to Frognot album is nearing completion...The band Blueface is considering major changes that they're not yet ready to announce. Watch this space...Overflow are just about done with the mastering and artwork for their six-song EP and hope to have it out in time for 1998; check them out this Friday, December 12, at the Across the Street Bar--which is now booking bands that do original material--when they open for Bobgoblin...
Street Beat values all your e-mail tips, assistance, criticism, and blather at Matt_Weitz@dallasobserver.com.