Music - Feature Viva 'Vegas' 

Two Tons of Steel roll the dice with new album and live recording

A couple of weeks ago, Kevin Geil faced a dilemma. Geil, lead singer for local rockabilly/country institution Two Tons of Steel, is also a staff photographer for the Express-News, and he received a phone call informing him that because the Spurs' playoff run had left the staff shorthanded, he would need to work on Sunday. The only snag: Two Tons were in Lubbock preparing for a Saturday night gig.

"How do you get from finishing a show at 2:30 in the morning in Lubbock and be back in San Antonio for work?," Geil, 42, rhetorically asks, still amazed that he pulled it off. "So when things like that happen, it gets hard."

click to enlarge music-twotons_330jpg
Two Tons of Steel: Celebrating the 10th anniversary of their Tuesday shows at Gruene Hall.

Fortunately for Geil - and area roots-music fans - such complications rarely occur. Geil carefully manages the quartet's schedule around his vacations, rarely allowing Two Tons to venture out on the road for more than two weeks at a time. Even with such restrictions, however, the group has built an impressive resume over its 14-year-history, touring Europe, playing a series of shows in Cuba, taking the stage at the Grand Ole Opry, appearing in movies, and even popping up in a romance novel, First Date, by Karen Kendall. Ultimately, the group's most remarkable accomplishment has come closer to home, as they've taken a Tuesday night slot at Gruene Hall and transformed it into a Central Texas summertime institution that draws 1,200 people a night. This summer, they celebrate the 10th anniversary of Two Ton Tuesdays.

"Pat Molak of Gruene Hall first saw us at Tycoon Flats and asked us if we would like to open up for Asleep at the Wheel," Geil recalls. "Things worked out and we started playing there on Sundays for free. We built up a little following and graduated to Friday and Saturday night. Then they asked us if we would do all the Tuesdays in June. We did that for a couple of years and they got so popular, it was like, 'Let's do two months,' and then, 'Let's do three months.' It's pretty fun to watch, to have people set their vacations around it."

This summer, Two Tons of Steel are rolling the dice with a new studio album called Vegas and a June 28 Two Tons Tuesday at Gruene Hall that will be recorded for a live CD/DVD. The band has already released one live album at Gruene Hall, but with subsequent lineup additions - bassist Ric Ramirez and steel-guitar master Denny Mathis - Geil and his cohorts thought that the time had come to document their Gruene gigs.

"The shows are so good that we really just want to have a fresh version of the live CD," he says. "Actually, we're not pressing the old live CD anymore, so this new one's going to take the place of that one.

"I wish we could record every show because we're kind of like a free-form band. There are certain songs where the parts are played every night, but a lot of this stuff, the guys just throw it down and a lot of the parts are never duplicated."

An Austin native weaned on Buddy Holly and Elvis Presley's monumental Sun Records sides, Geil formed a spirited rockabilly trio called the Dead Crickets in 1991. As the band's profile started to grow beyond the San Antonio area, reps for the surviving members of Holly's Crickets demanded that the band change its name. Geil responded by rechristening the band Two Tons of Steel, based on a nickname for his 1956 hardtop Cadillac.

"Dead Crickets was a great name, and when we were doing more traditional rockabilly stuff, that worked better," Geil says. "But now, Two Tons of Steel is kind of like a generic thing where you don't know what it means. You just say, 'Okay, let's go see Two Tons.' With the Dead Crickets, a lot of people thought it was a punk band."

The band's latest studio effort, Vegas, begins with trad-country Geil originals, such as the title track and the mournful "Unglued," and romps to its conclusion with a series of covers: "Secret Agent Man," Billy Lee Riley's rockabilly staple "Red Hot," the raunchy R&B classic "Ice Cream Man" (best known to children of '70s AOR for its presence on Van Halen's debut album), and, most memorably, the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated."

Two Tons' twangy treatment of the Ramones anthem has become a concert signature, a perenially big request from people who can't get over how naturally the song's driving, eighth-note guitar rhythm adapts itself to honky tonk two-steps.

Two tons of steel
8pm
Tue, June 28
$4
Gruene Hall
1281 Gruene Rd.,
New Braunfels
830-606-1281

"It's been a good song for us," Geils says, with his characteristic sense of understatement. "I was on the way to a show years ago at the `now defunct` North St. Mary's Brewing Company. I heard it on the radio right before I was going in. I didn't even know all the words, and at the end of the night I just threw it out and the band caught on. We knew when we played it the first time that there was something catchy about it and that people liked it."

Geil credits Vegas producer Lloyd Maines with shaping the group's material, noting that about half the album's songs were unfinished going into the studio, and Maines helped to work out instrumental parts and create strong intros and endings.

"He's an incredible guy to begin with," Geil says. "Extremely humble. And he's not a producer that says, 'It needs to be exactly like this.' We do our thing and he captures it and makes it as good as it can be. He's really helped us hone-in on our sound."

Geil says that he once hoped to retire in 2002, but with the band more active than ever (and with Two Tons signed to a five-album deal with Palo Duro Records), he's locked into his music career for the forseeable future.

"We're still building a fan base and the music changes a little bit from year to year," he says. "I had planned to call it quits, but things keep happening to make it fun. It's still just as much fun as when we started."

By Gilbert Garcia


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