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It might seem like a stretch to go from playing Elvis covers in tiny San Antonio dives to being a premier Texas swing band with an almost universal appeal among urban hipsters and blue-collar juke-joint denizens, but this has been the exact trajectory of Two Tons of Steel's career.
It all started eight years ago, when singer-guitarist Kevin Geil and his compadres -- Dennis Fallon (electric guitar) and Ric Ramirez (upright bass); drummer Steven Hartwell and steel guitarist Denny Mathis joined the band later -- started playing Harry's, a one-room beer joint in San Antonio. Then known as the Dead Crickets, the band played old-school '50s rockabilly, obscure covers of Sun Records-era Elvis and deep-catalog Buddy Holly numbers. This was 1995, just before Swingers turned hip urbanites (the kind you can see at the Continental Club) into wannabe Big Bad Voodoo Daddies, before Brian Setzer's rockabilly-jump blues comeback Guitar Slinger hit the shelves, and before the Squirrel Nut Zippers were a big blip on the mainstream radar.
Geil and company were retro before retro was cool again, and before there was a discernible market for rockabilly. Yet somehow they managed to pack the house night after night. In fact, the group was so popular that the weekly San Antonio Current had to create a new category in its annual music awards in order to accommodate the group's unique position as the only rockabilly gig in town.
But that wasn't enough. "I just hated, hated being called a '50s cover band," says Geil. "That would just make me so mad I would sit down and write ten songs. That's what really drove me. I hated that label." Despite the fact that the band's first record, Two Tons of Steel, was all original music, the label stuck. "I always wanted to be my own person," Geil explains. "Doing other people's music is great, but I had songs that I had written and I wanted to play them and I figured, well, people like them, so we should play them and get away from playing the cover stuff."
Geil started working his originals into the set list of obscure covers, and the group began tooling its sound away from rockabilly and toward the Texas swing for which it is now known. Along the way, the band members developed impeccable reputations as musicians and a rabidly loyal fan base. The group has been sponsoring "Two Ton Tuesdays" at Gruene Hall for seven years running. Every Tuesday night from June through August, avid two-steppers -- upwards of a thousand a week -- pay a $3 cover and dance themselves sweaty to a live Two Ton soundtrack.
Even more important to Geil is the effect the band's music has had on the young fans who attended shows from the beginning. "One of the nicest things is that we inspired some of the kids here in San Antonio, and they started bands," he says humbly. "These kids were coming out and they were really good -- some of them are still around, like Cave Catt Sammy."
Despite the fact that Two Tons has established its own national and international presence (a wildly successful 1997 tour of Cuba, generous airplay in Europe, a Grand Ole Opry debut earlier this summer), its main stage is still the Lone Star State. And in that respect, the members of Two Tons of Steel are like proud parents who send their offspring out to conquer the world, while they contentedly keep the home fires burning. "Being able to inspire people is really rewarding," says Geil. "It doesn't have anything to do with ego or anything, but it's nice to know that you make a difference somewhere down the line."
Not that every band they've inspired has been as lucky, hardworking and well behaved as Cave Catt Sammy. "I don't know what happened to those other guys -- I think they're still in jail," Geil jokes. "Their parents quit hunting me down years ago."
The band isn't all that hard to find, seeing as it logs approximately 150 shows a year. Two Tons has found audiences that cross class and social boundaries, appealing to both the Shiner-drinking diehards of Blanco's and the cape cod-swilling youngsters at the Continental. Houston crowds, Austin crowds, Lubbock crowds -- they're all different, but they all like Two Tons of Steel.
Geil has many positive things to say about Houston as a music town -- a rare stance, indeed. We're soft touches here, he says. "I think Houston is a lot more friendly to music across the board," Geil opines. "[Houston] isn't so into being the 'Live Music Capital of the World.' Houston seems to be less critical. In Austin, we've run across a lot of people who are set in their ways and say, 'Well, if you're going to call yourself this kind of a band, you have to play the music this way or you're not that kind of band.' "
Seeing all the different faces of Texas gives Geil a healthy appreciation for the diversity of the state's musical tastes, which in turn is manifested in his songwriting. The group's latest studio outing, King of a One-Horse Town, rings with strong steel-guitar lines and reflects San Antonio's proximity to Mexico on songs like "Does Heaven Know." These influences, mixed with more traditional boot-scootin' fare, rockabilly bops and a redneck cover of the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated" are what make Two Tons truly Texan (it doesn't hurt to have a Lone Star beer sponsorship, too). To listen to them is to bring a tear to the eye of any homesick Texpatriate. It's hard to think of higher praise than that.
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