For a band that started by accident, Whiskey Boat is making a pretty good go at turning into the real thing. On August 19, the quartet that bills itself as "Southeast Texas White Trash Honky Tonk" plays its 100th show as host band of Wicked Wednesdays, the Continental Club's weekly revue of burlesque dancers, (now-discontinued) flaming baton twirlers in the backyard and spit-in-your-eye songs with titles like "Whiskey Above the Stove," "Bartime" and "The Brazos River Turnaround."
There's a better than average chance the four Boaters — Eric Tucker (vocals/guitar), Chuck Savage (vocals/guitar), Brian Thomas (bass) and Chad Lyons (drums) — might still be nursing hangovers from celebrating the release of the group's debut CD, Congress Hotel, the previous Saturday. Whiskey Boat started recording Hotel shortly after Tucker, who's played drums off and on (mostly on) for Jesse Dayton since the two were middle-school classmates in Beaumont, put together the group as a favor to then-Continental manager Trey Armstrong.
Armstrong had six weeks' worth of Wednesdays he needed to book, and Tucker's original plan to fly in his New York-based friend the Reverend Vince Anderson, a piano-pounding ordained minister whose preferred pulpits are the taverns of Williamsburg and the Lower East Side, for a string of shows hit a snag when Anderson couldn't step away from his congregational duties.
"I was actually learning how to play guitar in the meantime, and I was like, 'Screw it, man — I'll just put together a band and I'll get up there and sing a couple of songs just for the hell of it," Tucker says in an easygoing East Texas drawl similar to Matthew McConaughey's. "I called Charlie and I was like, 'Look man, you play three or four songs and I'll play three or four songs and we'll call it a night. All we have to do is cover about 30 or 40 minutes."
Those 30 or 40 minutes turned into two years pretty quick. Wicked Wednesdays can be hit-or-miss affairs, both in terms of attendance and quality. Some weeks can be pretty sloppy, with lots of starting and stopping and cross-talk between band members. Tucker calls the Wednesday gigs "a live rehearsal." Other weeks, perhaps stoked by opening sets from like-minded renegade roots-rockers such as Austin's Dertybird or Houston's Grizzly, Whiskey Boat is in the pocket and resembles the snarling twang engine Tucker hoped the group would become.
"That's what we wanted to do, get to the two-year mark," he says. "That was a big goal for us. In the beginning, it was like, 'Right now we sound like we've been together for two months.' A year from now, we're going to sound like we've been together for a year, and two years from now we're going to sound pretty good."
But ask him how a band that started so informally, and still sounds pretty informal, turned into a group with a new CD, a PR consultant hired to shop Hotel to Texas Music radio stations and tentative regional touring plans (the members' schedules permitting), and Tucker is at a loss.
"I really don't know," he laughs. "We've butted heads, and we each have our own ideas about how to do things. A lot of times we agree, and a lot of times we disagree, but we've been recording this whole time, and it's like, 'Well, what do we do? Do we push and try to get this thing out, or do we call it done and it is what it is? But things are going pretty good now. The record's out, and the Supersuckers are on it, and that's a big deal."
Old friends of Tucker's from his days with Dayton, who has recorded and toured with the Seattle-based cowpunks, the Supersuckers cut a honky-tonk duet of Neil Young's "Powderfinger" while they were in town for a two-night stand at the Continental last November. Like most of the album, it's more acoustic honky-tonk country than the hillbilly hard rock of Whiskey Boat's live shows; only "Whiskey Above the Stove" and "Bee Sting on My Heart" really hint at the Jim Beam-flavored racket the quartet can kick up on the right night.
Hotel is more subdued than Whiskey Boat in person, Tucker says, because the band mostly recorded it on Savage's Macintosh at home. However, because they're only out the $325 in studio time Tucker used to lay down his drum tracks and the rights fees it cost to license "Powderfinger" and Jerry Reed's "Amos Moses," another record is already taking shape. Tucker promises this one will include a larger helping of Whiskey Boat's more electric material.
"Whiskey Boat is a fun thing," Tucker says. "It started out as just a way to have fun and keep my commitment to the Continental Club, but it's turned into a music-making little entity, which is kinda cool."
Last Saturday night at the Continental Club, the transformation was almost complete. With longtime Houston harmonica virtuoso Sonny Boy Terry sitting in the entire set, Whiskey Boat left those live rehearsals behind for well over an hour of steel-studded honky-tonk and rambunctious, red-eyed rock and roll.
Hooting and hollering pretty much the whole time, the crowd of about 75 was seldom still, whether two-stepping and twirling during "Brazos River Turnaround" or shaking every appendage and tailfeather at their disposal during ramped-up Jerry Lee Lewis/CCR rockers "Brookshire Bros. Baby" and Shane MacGowan's "That Woman's Got Me Drinking." Between songs, the banter was breezy and easygoing — no doubt fueled by Tucker's generous belts from a black-label bottle — but once the drums and guitars kicked in, the band was anything but.
In Whiskey Boat's journey to lift itself above side-project status, Saturday was a clear step in the right direction, although it may have been the last step the group takes for a while.
After the show, Tucker said Rob Zombie — who directed this weekend's Halloween sequel, H2, featuring Tucker and Dayton as members of undead rockers Captain Clegg and the Night Creatures — has asked Dayton's band to open his upcoming world tour. Dayton is also mulling an offer to tour Europe as Clegg and the Night Creatures, he added.
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So Whiskey Boat may be headed for dry dock, but one Wednesday in the not too distant future, when the Night Creatures will be tucked safely in their graves, the Congress Hotel will once again be open for business — regardless of how many people may be there to witness it.
"We've got a lot of friends and fans," Tucker says. "It's just getting them all out on the same night is the trick."
Whiskey Boat plays 11 p.m. most Wednesdays at the Continental Club, 3700 Main, 713-529-9899 or www.continentalclub.com/Houston.html.