Raking In the Chips

Denton's Riverboat Gamblers know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em

The Riverboat Gamblers bring to life the old saw that boring towns inspire great rock and roll. Physically the Gamblers may exist in Denton, a small city 30 miles north of Dallas, but according to vocalist Mike Weibe, they really live "Someplace where punk rock, rock and roll and garage rock all kind of meet and cross over."

The heavy hype that precedes the Gamblers has caused many to adopt a cynical view of the band, a jaded attitude that usually dissolves after the naysayers have witnessed them in person. Consider this example posted on the message board of the garagepunk.com Web site: "Holy fuckin' shit. I just saw the guys…and I am now convinced that the best band in the world is the Riverboat Gamblers. They killed Denver. I thought they were gonna be all hype and I could not have been more wrong."

And it's not just Denver skeptics that are folding after seeing these Gamblers rock a full house. Legendary Austin punk/garage rock producer Tim Kerr has a testimonial of his own. "I think the Riverboat Gamblers are completely Texas and are an unbelievably great band."

The Riverboat Gamblers treat a groupie to a romantic picnic.
The Riverboat Gamblers treat a groupie to a romantic picnic.

Denton is a prairie town of 90,000, home to Texas Women's University and the University of North Texas, which is renowned for its music school. It isn't the first place that comes to mind as a mecca for the arts, but recently it has birthed a few quality acts, thus earning itself the sobriquet Denton Rock City. Critically acclaimed roots rockers Slobberbone are probably the most well-known act to call it home right now.

This small-town atmosphere is where the Gamblers at first made their bones on the house party scene. "It was about five years ago, there were about four or five houses that people were throwing shows at and all these bands were coming through playing them," remembers Weibe. "A couple were old frat houses and a couple were just old residential houses. It was kind of off and on if there was a club in Denton, so you just did house shows. That's all where we got started. We were all in each other's bands; it's pretty incestuous as far as band stuff."

Tiny Washington D.C.-based label Vile Beat Records caught wind of them even then and put out their self-titled debut CD in 2001, but it was after a gig at Emo's in Austin that things took off for the band. During Gearfest, a three day festival over Labor Day weekend of 2002 that was promoted by the independent San Francisco label Gearhead, the band rolled a seven.

Weibe picks up the tale. "It was a good time and a good slot. All our friends in Austin were going nuts and Mike and Michelle from Gearhead were like 'wow.' It was one of those nights when everything happened right and just went perfect. We definitely didn't go into thinking this is our chance, but all the cards just fell perfectly. We wouldn't be where we are without Gearhead. It's all working out as it should."

The Gearfest performance was one of those special rock and roll moments that will be indelibly stamped on memories for ages. Usually it's not as enjoyable to see a band when you aren't familiar with any of their material. In this instance it didn't matter -- from the second the band hit the first chord, pandemonium reigned. More than 200 people swayed as if caught in an earthquake, multiple beers flew overhead. From the stage came some of the toughest live American rock and roll these ears have ever heard. Those in attendance left the show counting themselves lucky to have been a part of something special. Needless to say Gearhead rushed to sign them.

The two-month-old CD that is the result of that signing is titled, aptly enough, Something to Crow About. A lyric from the song "What's What" hints at their Texas swagger and could serve as a statement of purpose: "Creepy people form a line up front / you wanna get your cut / I'm gonna tell you all what's what!"

Weibe names bands like the Rocket From the Crypt, the Misfits, AC/DC, the Descendents and Japanese punks Teengenerate as influences, but there can be no shorthand comparisons that would do justice to the Gamblers sound. Speaking specifically of Sweet J.A.P., Weibe opines that such bands don't necessarily sound much like his band, but are "definitely simpatico."

Both the international distribution that their new label provides and several national tours have helped spread the word outside the band's rabid Texas stronghold, and it's not as if Gearhead doesn't have an ear for talent. After all, they've previously hit gold with the Hives and the Hellacopters.

While Weibe is mild-mannered and humble offstage, on stage he makes every show a riotously interactive event. He doesn't confront the audience like Iggy Pop as much as he draws them in. Weibe spends almost as much time singing from the club floor as he does from the stage, and his bandmates, drummer Jessie 3X, bassist Patrick "Spider" Lillard and guitarists Colin Ambulance and Freddy Castro don't exactly wear concrete shoes either. This intermingling of band and fans adds to the fun by inspiring ever more crazy behavior from audience members who wouldn't normally spray $5 beers all over themselves and the band.

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