Blast From the Past

A quarter-century after their last appearance at El Casino Ballroom, the Paladins return

Dave Gonzalez, singer and guitarist for rockabilly trio the Paladins, says his heart broke a little when he heard about the roof blowing off at El Casino Ballroom.

"I remember when the roof blew off. It made me real sad to hear about it, man," Gonzalez says over the phone from a tour stop in Omaha, Neb., referring to the freak 1991 windstorm that ripped the roof from El Casino.

The Paladins, originally from San Diego, played three memorable concerts at the ballroom in the late '80s, and Gonzalez remembers each one.

"They were all good shows. Once we played there with Los Lobos, once it was a blues festival. It was a great place to play, and we also loved the community feeling. My dad is from Tucson, and I still have a lot of family there, so I knew how important it was."

The Paladins will return to El Casino, which reopened in 2000 (albeit at about half the size), for a concert on Friday, July 19.

Presented by community radio station KXCI 91.3 FM, the show is billed as a "House Rockin' Blues Review" that also will feature Bob Corritore, Mike Eldred, the Bad News Blues Band, Tom Walbank, Mike Hebert, Johnny Strasser and the Rockabilly Strangers.

"When I heard about this concert, and I knew we were out doing these dates this summer, I said definitely we should stop by," Gonzalez said.

El Casino Ballroom, a South Tucson landmark for more than six decades, spent most of the 1990s shuttered. The ballroom, which opened in 1947, has served an important role in this community as a venue for weddings, quinceañeras and a wide variety of concerts—everything from Tejano and blues to rock, reggae and punk.

KXCI's successful series of "house-rockin'" blues and roots-rock events at El Casino during the 1980s were among the concert highlights of that decade.

Following the 1991 roof damage, the interior of the ballroom was exposed to the elements, and ensuing monsoon storms made it unusable. It took the Latin American Social Club, which owns El Casino, nine years to put its financial house in order and to rebuild the ballroom at its current size.

Just like a quarter-century ago, the Paladins will be onstage at El Casino. And the band's lineup is the classic trio reunited. It will feature upright bassist Thomas Yearsley, who founded the band with his high-school pal Gonzalez more than 30 years ago, as well as drummer Brian Fahey.

Although the show is being billed as a Paladins reunion, the band never really broke up. "We took almost 10 years off," Gonzalez says, calling the period from 2004 to 2010 a hiatus.

During that time, Gonzalez played with two critically received groups: the Tucson-based Hacienda Brothers, in which he partnered with the late accordionist and singer Chris Gaffney; and the Austin, Texas-based Stone River Boys, a project with singer Mike Barfield. Both bands played shifting combinations of country, roots rock and soul.

And both groups featured Gonzalez in supporting roles, rather than being the center of attention in a trio. He brings those experiences back to the Paladins.

"I really got a chance with the Hacienda Brothers and with Stone River to learn and play in a lot of other guitar styles. The Paladins sound is still more blues-based rockabilly, but I have another 10 years under my belt and I think some of what I did with those groups shows up in the Paladins' sound now.

"I have played with some great players and singers, and with the Paladins I do all the singing and guitar playing. Coming back to this group is not easy. It takes a little work getting back on the racetrack."

Never known to be a slouch on the six-string, Gonzalez says his approach now is tempered by what he has learned in the past several years.

"I would say my style now is a little more less-is-more. I just choose my notes and keep my cool. Maybe you can say that means I don't play as fast as I used to. I don't know, but I think there is a beauty in simplicity. Luckily, Thomas and Brian can do that intense stuff to keep the energy up. They are on fire and ripping it up each night."

These days, the Paladins don't play quite every night.

They have moderated their touring and no longer maintain the intense pace of playing night after night, with no breaks, for weeks on end. That kind of schedule had them traveling more than a million miles by 1996, when they released the live album Million Mile Club.

The group reconvened for European festivals in 2010 and 2011, then returned to playing in the United States in 2012. This summer, they've headlined some European dates and are in the midst of a brief American tour before heading to Australia. "We're trying to not push it too hard," Gonzalez says.

And he's excited to report that the Paladins have new studio recordings available for the first time in a decade.

"We have a brand new 45-rpm single we are selling on the road. I think you can also download it on the Web. We recorded it in Thomas Yearsley's home studio on an old tape machine and with old microphones, the whole deal. Very cool and old school."

The single—which features the songs "Wicked" and "Should Have Been Dreaming"—will be available at El Casino, he says.

"Whenever we sell out, we just have more sent out."

He wouldn't say whether there are plans for a new album. For now, Gonzalez is simply happy to be playing gigs with his old band.

He says he hopes to re-create for audiences some of the fire he felt when he was 16 and was inspired to play music by seeing some of his heroes in concert.

"When I first started driving, about 1977, it was like a sense of freedom. I would go wherever I could see the players I looked up to. I got to see Muddy Waters. That blew my mind. I realized at that point, this is what I really want to do, to share that passion with other people."

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