Bearcat leads the crowd through a lackluster version of "Happy Birthday," but he and the band click when they take a request to play an original tune. During the song, Bearcat good-naturedly follows a cute waitress to a table, Billy Coakley's long hair falls in his face as he pounds away on the drums, and Butch Armstrong delivers a knockout guitar solo. It's all part of a simple but effective performance by a band that can seemingly play before any crowd at any time of the day.
For more than a decade, Armstrong Bearcat has been entertaining diverse crowds with everything from lunchtime concerts at the Galleria to regular gigs at the ChopHouse and Rock Bottom Brewery. But on a recent afternoon, Stutz Bearcat looks as if he could stand to be entertained himself, to get his mind off the pain. He had oral surgery last week, and he can't seem to convince the doctor that he needs drugs. "I shouldn't get upset, but the guy acts like I'm askin' for 100 Percodans because I've got a caraway seed caught in my tooth."
With his girth and ruddy face, Bearcat has the look of a man who's had some personal experience with self-medication -- at least of the six-pack variety. Despite the tooth pain, he manages to make it over to the Lakewood Public Library, where he sends e-mails to his fans. The missives are meant to keep followers up-to-date on the band's schedule, but more often than not, Bearcat expounds on whatever topic he wants. He doesn't need much provocation to share his opinions, whether they're on the city's virtues ("Cleveland has the best fuckin' titty bars in the country") or the problem with the United States ("There's this Calvinist ethic that everybody's got to work, work, work. That's bullshit. You don't need the SUV"). He also hypes his band, because, as he writes, "We get ignored by the press because we don't wear masks onstage."
This is the latest in a string of bands for the singer-musician. "I've been playing so long," he says with a laugh. "Before MTV, there was this thing called rock and roll. I played rock and roll." He had stints in Hullabaloo, the Generators, Buzzy Linheart, Savoy Brown, and Mr. Stress. The latter outfit, he recalls, fired him "during an argument at McDonald's." He's raised four kids without ever having a 9-to-5 job, and he's never stooped to playing only covers.
"We do a lot of original songs," he says of Armstrong Bearcat. "There's no song that we'd do that's like the record. I like to think that this band has a lot of integrity in what we play. I've never had to play Neil Diamond or country music or Top 40."
The group got its first break in 1989, at a jam night at the Euclid Tavern. The musicians had been playing together pretty regularly when they received a call from a guy at Belkin Productions. "He said the opening band for Living Colour went to the wrong city. 'If you can get down here in 45 minutes, you can do the show,' he told us. So we did. The band, it just clicked. After that, we started getting calls for bookings."
Though the music is blues-based rock and roll, Bearcat's hand-slapping bass gives it a funkier groove, and Armstrong's intense wailing solos confer a slightly psychedelic Hendrix sound. Bearcat has found a good foil in Armstrong, who plays a wicked guitar and doesn't talk much, leaving the between-song banter to Bearcat. At a recent show, the band even managed to give life to the stale rocker "Rocky Mountain Way," thanks mainly to Armstrong's inspired soloing. And despite the silly e-mails and goofy onstage banter, the three musicians have made a serious commitment to the band.
"There are some [bands] that'll still do it occasionally, you know, every other weekend, and there's nothing wrong with that, God bless them," Bearcat says, a hint of sarcasm in his voice. "They did what their parents told them: 'Get a job and make it a hobby.' People like me and Butch and our drummer, Billy Coakley, there are certain people -- it just gets in your blood. I have to play. At this point in my life, I don't think there's anything else I could do anyway."