Raking In the Chips

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."

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.

An incident on tour in New York earlier this summer demonstrates the pitfalls of Weibe's willingness to bring it to the people. "I fell on a pint glass, it broke, and I ended up getting 15 stitches," he remembers. "They took me to Bellevue hospital where the crazy people are, there was this guy who had burned his top lip off with a crack pipe. There were just crazy people all over just freaking out. It took like six hours for them to stitch me up, and all the while the rest of the band is at Manitoba's, the bar owned by Handsome Dick of the Dictators, who was there that night and then the cast of The Sopranos came in. I've always wanted to go there and instead I'm stuck in Bellevue. That was my first time ever in New York City and I'm physically and emotionally scarred from it."

Somewhat surprisingly, given their five years of hard work and their copious buzz, the band hasn't quite been able to quit their day jobs. Given the amount of time, talent and energy involved, it's not unexpected that the band would get discouraged from time to time, and while Weibe may have had a few doubts, keeping the big picture in mind has helped dispel them.

"Anytime you start feeling negative about it you just have to start thinking back about what I'd be doing at home, which is working a horrible job which doesn't pay in any way," he says. "Even though this rock and roll thing doesn't pay either, it's better to be happy in what you're doing than to be unhappy in what you're doing and not be making any money. It seems like it could possibly get to where we could do it full time. In the past couple of years it's all been kind of baby steps but it's getting incrementally better with each tour and each record. I don't know how we'll make it in the meantime. A goal would be to make a living off of it, keep putting out good records, do good tours, keep doing a good job. We don't have any MTV aspirations. We want to be successful, but we're not going to do anything deviant to a record executive" to get there.

The elements are all there for the band to hit the big time: legendary live shows, good distribution, studio records that do justice to their raucous performances, their own distinctive sound and a literal and figurative hunger to take it all the way. While they're working to reach superstar status, they're providing one hell of a reason to be proud of being from Texas, unlike certain political figures of late. Don't be foolish enough to bet against them; the Riverboat Gamblers are dealing from a marked deck.

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Timothy J. O'Brien