Houston's Biggest Cheap Trick Superfans Have Started a Tribute Band

The High Roller (L-R): Mark Riddell, Allen Hill, Thomas Escalante, Brent Baldwin, and Eric C. Hughes
The High Roller (L-R): Mark Riddell, Allen Hill, Thomas Escalante, Brent Baldwin, and Eric C. Hughes
Photo by Colin Searl

One could understandably be forgiven for believing that the following scenario is 100 percent true.

The 25 or so musicians who make up the Continental Club Mafia – interchangeable players in a dizzying lineup of bands who make the Mid-Main club their home base – all live in a communal house while dreaming up their next project. Think the Monkees’ beachfront property in the TV series, or the Beatles’ pad with the sunken living room in Help!

It wasn’t quite like that when drummer Eric C. Hughes (Allen Oldies Band/El Orbits/Mike Stinson) and vocalist Thomas Escalante (Xanadudes [Now We Are Here]/Clouseaux/Suspects/El Orbits) came up with the sonic syndicate’s newest effort: an all-Cheap Trick tribute band called The High Roller. You see, Hughes and Escalante were schmoozing at a Super Bowl party on Main Street earlier this year – and imbibing more than a few adult beverages – when the latter suggested the “great idea” for their next project.

Hardcore CT fan Hughes was immediately and enthusiastically on board. And by the time Escalante had sobered up the next day, Hughes not only had already put most of the band together, but had two gigs booked.

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“I think Thomas was taken aback a bit!” Hughes recalls on the outdoor patio of coffee/booze bar Double Trouble recently.

The lineup also coalesced with Mafia-made man Mark Riddell on bass and Hughes’s friend from Austin, Brent Baldwin, on guitar. The last puzzle piece was Houston musician/promoter/gadfly Allen Hill (Allen Oldies Band/El Orbits/Banana Blender Surprise) on guitar.

The High Roller – named after a Cheap Trick deep cut about a drug dealer (“Dream Police,” it seems, was already taken) – will play their debut show Friday at the Continental Club after only four rehearsals, before a second show the next week in Austin. Expect to hear “I Want You to Want Me,” “Dream Police,” “Surrender,” “She’s Tight” and “The Flame,” but also more obscure material.

“I knew the Cheap Trick hits, but hadn’t gone that deep into the catalog,” Hill offers. “Then, after joining this band, I wondered why I waited so long. I love it! They are just solid rock, nothing fancy.”

Members have their own memories of first dates with the pride of Rockford, Illinois – Robin Zander (vocals/guitar), Rick Nielsen (lead guitar), Tom Petersson (bass) and Bun E. Carlos (drums). For Hughes it was in the summer of 1979, when he heard the Live at Budokan cassette (remember those?) pretty much continuously at the neighborhood pool. He eventually scored his own copy as a Christmas gift from grandma. For his part, Escalante says the band’s music was inescapable on Corpus Christi’s C101 rock station. But it was the band’s high appraisal from noted ticket scalper Mike Damone in the movie that Escalante's friend was raving about, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, that made him really curious.

Hughes – the biggest CT fan and “de facto” bandleader (“Because I’m spending all the money on all the shit!”) says that the band is putting together their show through a combination of listening to the original records, reading sheet music and relying on the sort of musical communication that can only come from playing with guys you have before. Many times before.

“When you just look at paper, you might play too cautiously, and sometimes that can affect not only the performances but your idea of where the song is supposed to go,” he says.

“We have the right attitude and aptitude," adds Hill. "It’s not just learning the songs; it’s how to play together. In some cover bands, ears are closed and they are too worried about how the record goes. We all have giant ears. And it’s a communal spirit among us”

The music of Cheap Trick — from across the decades — does cover a lot of ground within the relatively narrow confines of power-pop and rock, with songs about sex, joy, sex, drugs and suicide. (Don't forget KISS-loving parents.) Having had pretty much the same four-man lineup since 1974 and for more than 35 years (minus the six during which Petersson was not part of the group) until Carlos's adversarial, lawsuit-generating 2010 departure also inspires The High Roller (Rick Nielsen's son, Daxx, took over on the skins).

“A great band exceeds the sum of its parts,” Hill says. “I’m a huge Who fan and everybody loved Keith Moon when he could play, and you couldn’t replace him with someone else. It wouldn’t be the same at all.”

But while they are a Cheap Trick tribute act, the music The High Roller plans to play onstage will be respectful toward — but not slavish imitations of — the original material.

“The challenge is how do we put our personality into this music that is its own entity for a kick-ass live band,” Hill says. And while no tribute band member is more scrutinized by audiences than the lead vocalist, Escalante is not worried about practicing how to sound just like Zander.

“Yeah, I can wear a wig!” he laughs. “Robin sings at such a high range, and with power. But I’ll try to be as true as possible without doing an imitation,” he says. “To me, this group is a breath of fresh air. Because most of what I’ve done since I moved to Houston is anything but rock. And Cheap Trick was one of the first bands I saw paying my own money to see. And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I’ve been waiting for this.’”

Hughes is more practical about the visual presentation and slipping into Carlos’s seat. “I’m not going to grow a mustache or smoke cigarettes onstage or any of that shit. But I’m sure going to play like him!”

The High Roller will augment their debut immediately following Friday's set when the same quintet will reappear as The Popsters, playing 45 minutes of the power-pop material that inspired Cheap Trick.

Understanding the limited audience potential of an all-Cheap Trick cover band in Houston, they also are tentatively looking at hooking up with other local tribute acts for dual bill shows – name-checking Led Zeppelin, the Cure and even Olivia Newton-John-based cover bands as co-headliners. And they definitely want to gig outside their home city.

“We want to keep it going. All of us have our hands in a lot of different cookie jars, because that’s how things are with local musicians,” Hill sums up. “Playing the same band with the same guys all the time is a rare thing. And there’s a wear-and-tear factor. We all have different outlets that keep us playing. And this is something fresh and interesting for all of us.”

The High Roller (and the Popsters) perform 10 p.m. this Friday, June 2 at the Continental Club, 3700 Main. Also June 9 at The ABGB in Austin. Find out more at the band’s Facebook page.

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