Outside the Travis Cafe, Pat Kneifert of the Tequila Cowboys talks with a prospective "roadie."
"Aw, c'mon, man," says the roadie, really just a vagrant. "Do me solid! Do me solid!"
"I've already told you," Kneifert says, "I don't have any money."
"C'mon, man! I help you out."
"But I don't have any equipment"
"I carry it out for you. Whatever you need. C'mon. Do me solid!"
Just before he and his band begin their second set, Kneifert finally strikes a deal with the roadie. If the straggler shows up around midnight, he'll get a couple bucks for carrying Kneifert's acoustic guitar to the parking lot.
Kneifert helps out because he can. It's just the cowboy way: rough but warm, just like the Cowboys' sound.
Kneifert and his 'pokes are experienced hombres who know of life's hard edge. They're also relatively new to each other as a band, and are excited about their future together -- like young kids about to go off to camp. And it shows. Even though the country-rock group, made up of Kneifert and multi-instrumentalists Ray Cashman and Mark Zeus, has been together less than six months, it will soon release its debut CD, Broken Glass, and has already become a regular fixture at The Ale House, Diedrich Coffee, the Last Concert Cafe and the Travis Cafe. All the attention is well deserved.
If Broken Glass is any indication, it shouldn't take long for the band to find its signature sound. The best tracks are buoyant, churning numbers, such as "Everything's Alright," "Listen to My Heart," the drunk-man fable "Red Johnson" and the title track. A slow tempo works on "Millionaire" but has less impact on other numbers. The band (with assistance from co-producers John Egan and Matt Hammon, who doubles on drums and percussion) gets good contributions from guest players on harmonica and fiddle. Everything else, from guitar to Dobro to mandolin to bass, has been wrought by the trio.
The CD can't compare, however, to the power of a Tequila Cowboys live performance. The production just doesn't capture lead singer Cashman's deep, distinctive voice, and the amazing interplay between the talented technicians on stage never surfaces in the digital format. The CD's ten tracks (and one hidden number) were recorded at the Hot Box, a studio in the Heights that, according to the group, was essentially a garage apartment that required the guys to turn off the air conditioner during recording.
No matter. Most bands have a hard time replicating their live energies in a box, and the rough-hewn and scruffy incongruities only make the Tequila Cowboys infinitely more engaging. "It's like roadhouse music," Zeus says about the band's sound. "You know, music that biker broads would like to take their tops off to."
Sadly, at least for all the dudes in the audience, no breasts go free at the Travis Cafe. But then again, this is one of the band's sedate, acoustic shows. The hopeful roadie even forgets to show up after the midnight hour, possibly blowing his chance to get in on the ground floor of a band headed to Nashville. There, the Tequila Cowboys will record some demos for an agency that -- get this -- might pay for them. Not bad for three well-traveled amigos.
The band came together almost as nonchalantly as a lazy rhythm in one of its songs. Cashman and Kneifert met while playing open-mike Mondays at the Brewery Tap, and began performing as a duo. Both already had a lifelong appreciation of music, says Cashman, who writes the majority of the Cowboys' songs, including every note of Broken Glass. Zeus, a native Chicagoan with a folk/country rock bent, seemed like a perfect fit once he landed in town earlier this year.
"We just started rehearsing and playing," Kneifert says, adding that the Travis Cafe is the band's acoustic outlet. The 'boys are searching for a drummer and bassist. Electric gigs hopefully will rock.
Each Cowboy has his war stories. Cashman has played with a handful of Southern rock and country cover bands during his career. Dallas native Kneifert, a trumpeter at age 12 who went the way of the devil during adolescence by playing in hard-rock cover bands, has become a Houston scene homebody. Kneifert's Mas Tequila Duo, with John Gorina, was once mildly hot. But the duo parted ways when Gorina decided to pursue straight-ahead country while Kneifert was discovering Americana. Luckily, at the same time, Cashman was also dabbling in public radio's favorite filler music. Kneifert and Cashman began jamming at open-mikes and on Congress Street outside NoDo's renowned La Carafe.
Meanwhile, Zeus had played with a number of successful Chi-town regional bands, the best-known being Tumbleweed, but had also lent his skills to "about nine garage bands that never did anything." Clearly the most experienced of the bunch, Zeus, who played his first gig at age 19, has released several solo albums throughout the past 20 years. Most have been self-released. Zeus actually makes his living as a musician. In addition to the Cowboys, he also plays with Clay Farmer and the Good Luck Band.
Zeus knows the pros and cons of a band like the Tequila Cowboys.
"Anytime you have a band concept, you've got more of a chance to collaborate," Zeus says. "And this band is very grassroots. It's still forming. There's no vision or direction yet."
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