Wes Niles and the Texas Skeeters. Photo by Doug Williams

Wes Niles and the Texas Skeeters. Photo by Doug Williams

Wes Niles and the Texas Skeeters will be performing Saturday, and the band formerly known as the Merriman Park Pops are looking back at almost 20 years of playing for live audiences in and around Lake Highlands.

The group, which first played in the fall of 1996, began as a group of Merriman Park Elementary dads – hence the name – and is still going strong.

“We’ve got 2 dentists, 3 attorneys, one financial planner, a builder and a real estate guy,” jokes Dr. Jeff Jones (guitar). Max Tucker (keyboard and fiddle), Dwight Henneberger (trumpet), David Brooks (drummer), Fielder Nelms (lead singer, keyboards), Mike Sandel (bass guitar), Jud Gilliland (saxophone) and Charlie Esquivel (trumpet) round out the rest of the band.

“We have been involved with multiple fundraising events over the years,” says Jones, “playing for Wrangler auctions, Merriman Park events, Exchange Club fundraisers and other parties. We have performed in various venues from the MPE cafeteria to center stage at Gilley’s.”

Jones credits his mom with making him take piano lessons in 3rd grade (“she thought it was important that we learn to play”), but says it was his older brother who showed him to play guitar a few years later.

“In ninth grade, my friends and I started a band called Hot Chocolate and the Chips,” says Jones. “We played 50s music mostly, and we practiced in our basement. We had an old drum set and a few amplifiers and keys. Our first gig was at our ninth grade talent show.”

“My first rock band was called ‘Kronus,’” says Tucker, “a truly 70s name. It was formed back in my senior year in high school in San Antonio. I later formed a band called ‘Only Tabu’ while I was in law school at UT Austin. We played a couple of times in the UT student union building.”

“I’ve studied several instruments, including piano, violin and trumpet,” says Tucker. “My parents also played a lot of classical albums around the house, and they frequently took me to the symphony.”

“The closest thing I had to playing in a rock band before this group was playing ‘Proud Mary’ in the Aggie Marching Band,” jokes Henneberger. “It was after seeing the Aggie band performing at a halftime show in 1968 that I decided that I wanted to be a part of that. I started playing later than most kids in school, but it was worth it as I enjoyed the time with the band in college. Rick Reynolds [a former member] always offered a good ribbing about my lack of any rhythm for anything other than a J.P. Sousa march.”

I asked the guys what keeps them going after 20 years.

“It’s fun hanging around with these talented musicians,” says Henneberger. “Practices are lively and witty, with a banter full of quips and jokes. I play 2nd trumpet, but I’m in competition for ‘first chair wisecracker’ in the band – and it’s tough competing with these guys. [David and Julie] Brooks created a band room for us, and practices have always been a nice break from work. The talent clearly resides in the rest of the group as the devil would lay down his fiddle to any one of these guys.”

“The audience interaction is definitely the best part,” says Jones. “When we have a full dance floor and everyone is singing along and dancing and encouraging you – there is definitely a ‘give and take’ going on. Music inspires me, it gets me excited. It helps keep life interesting.”

“The worst part of performing with Wes Niles is setting up the equipment and taking it down,” admits Tucker. “We don’t have a road crew. The best part is watching how the audience reacts to our tunes, watching them smile when we play one of their favorites, and watching them dance to one of our tunes. We’ve had many gigs where entire families – parents and their kids – are all out trying to dance together, which can really be a joy to watch.”

If you’d like to catch the show, Wes Niles and the Texas Skeeters will perform Saturday, Feb. 27 from 8 p.m. to midnight at Lone Star Roadhouse at Jupiter and Northwest Highway.