Sometimes you'll hear someone say that Austin is in the South. You'll hear it from the kind of person who puts sprouts on his burger, pays someone else to do his gardening, and really believes Eric Clapton is a bluesman. In another word, a Californian.
Still, I have to admit there have been rare moments when I've rediscovered my Mississippi Delta roots right here in Austin. And some of those moments were at T.C.'s Lounge on Monday nights.
The Little Elmore Reed Blues Band, arguably the most popular blues players in town, ended an eight-year reign earlier this month after the building that housed the eastside juke joint changed ownership. The show will go on; without missing a single Monday, TLERBB takes up residency a couple of miles down 12th Street at The Legendary White Swan.
Everyone agrees that the White Swan will be a worthy new home; Beerland, Rio Rita impresario Randall Stockton is the new proprietor and the once-seedy 12th Street and Chicon corner is looking better every day. But blues fans are wondering: You can take the band out of T.C.'s, but can you take T.C.'s out of the band?
"It kills me that it's ending," says the band's drummer, Mark Hays. "I've had more good times playing there than anywhere I've ever played." He said learning that the church that owned the property had sold felt like a "horrible nightmare."
There's no word yet from Thomas “T.C.” Perkins and his partner, Charles Shaw, who've run the place since the 70s, on their plans. One of the new owners, Eileen Bristol, told me they're opening an as-yet-unnamed club and restaurant featuring African dishes and a variety of music styles. She said she invited TLERBB to stay on, but for now the business is closed for renovations.
“T.C.'s on Monday nights, to me, was a spiritual center,” said bassist, J.T. “Pat” Whitefield. The place was the antidote to whitebread “Dirty Sixth” and as such made a great home for the blues supergroup that looks nothing like all the other “Live Music Capital” bands.
“I've never had more fun playing anywhere in my life,” added Whitefield, who was an original member of the Fabulous Thunderbirds and a veteran player on Texas' chitlin' circuit. “To me, there is good voodoo in T.C.'s”
"I've had a lot of people tell me it was just like a place they used to go to in Mississippi,” Hays added.
The place had soul, for sure. In recent years, Monday nights became a scene like none other in town. Frat boys and their dates preened for iPhone pictures destined for their Facebook pages. Graying Armadillo alumni leaned on booze-laden tables by the stage. Patrons a range of ages and races rarely seen together west of I-35 milled around a crock-pot of stew by the bar, waiting their turn to help themselves.
The Little Elmore Reed Blues band was started by northeast Texas natives Hays and Whitefield and North Carolina transplant Seth Walker. They launched their T.C.'s gig with a tip jar and a circle of musician friends. In true “Blue Monday” tradition, the night professional musicians typically have off became the night they got together to play for love, not money. Soon Walker brought in Mike Keller to play guitar. They mashed up the names of three role models—Little Walter, Elmore James and Jimmy Reed—and the band was born.
“And then mainly because so many kids were coming in, we decided to start taking a cover charge and checking ID's at the door,” Whitefield says.
Hays and Whitefield brought in a PA and lights. They built the stage themselves. Hays had the idea to keep tables right up in front of the stage, where the dance floor usually is. T.C.'s often-crowded dance floor was off to one side, by the bathrooms.
“I never wanted to go to a place and have a bunch of people dancing in front of me so that I couldn't see the band. The people who want to sit and watch the band are paying money, too. ”
When Walker eventually left the regular lineup, Hays hired Willie Pipkin (guitar) and Dale Spalding (vocals and harmonica), who are now regular fixtures in the band. Keller's touring bands (including Whitefield's old group, The Fabulous Thunderbirds) keep him on the road; the same is true of Spalding, who plays guitar and sings with Canned Heat. Eve Monsees and Greg Izor are among the regular featured players that fill in when someone has another engagement.
Gary Clark Jr., Marcia Ball, Gary Primich, James Cotton and Pinetop Perkins were among the band's many on-stage guests.
"During all these years there was always someone trying to get us to move to their club,” reveals Hays. But the band remained loyal. "We never wanted to move. T.C.'s has been the perfect combination of everything that a blues bar needs to be.”
“It's heartbreaking,” Whitefield says of the loss of his band's longtime home. “In all the years I've been playing I've never played a room that sounded more like a blues club than T.C.'s Lounge. The sound of that room was the thing that immediately attracted Mark and me. That room sounds perfect.”
A few other things will be a thing of the past--customers bringing in their own bottles of hooch, for example. The White Swan, unlike T.C.'s, has a liquor license.
"I believe the BYOB has been a big part of the appeal, and we're gonna be losing that," Hays says.
One change a lot of fans will no doubt be eager to embrace is The White Swan's sweet, sweet air-conditioning—an amenity their former digs didn't boast.
“It was always very humid in there, and all that humidity was from human sweat,” says Whitefield. He claims that at one show, they got a 130-degree temperature reading on the stage. “But the hotter it got, the more crowded T.C.'s got. Can you explain that to me?”