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"Do I need earplugs?" my friend asked, half-joking. I was taking him to his first Riverboat Gamblers show. I wondered: If I told him he needed a hard hat, would he back out?
That night the Gamblers played to a packed room at the Cavern. Outside, the air was chilly, but inside the club, the body heat was overwhelming. The girl next to me complained loudly when someone bumped her, spilling her drink. She wasn't going to last past the first song. At a Gamblers show, you can forget things like eardrum damage or spilled drinks. You'd be better off watching out for flying microphone stands, spit, beer spray and the occasional band member.
True to form, it didn't take long for singer Mike Wiebe to notice the musical instruments lining the club walls. He snatched down an acoustic guitar and smashed it just short of kindling. Wiebe threw its shattered remains into the audience like coins to beggars. One ecstatic guy caught the guitar neck and madly pumped it into the air. The club's staff watched helplessly as Wiebe demolished decorations, but for the crowd, it was a baptism. See, the audience at a Gamblers show is just as much a part of the act as the lunatics onstage. It's a sweat-and-beer-soaked brotherhood. After all, where would five instrument-wielding, demolition-derby maniacs be without a drunken crowd to urge them on?
The Riverboat Gamblers are one of those bands whose mention is always followed by "You gotta see 'em live." And it's true. Onstage, these Denton boys take the spirit and energy of punk stalwarts like the Stooges and the Ramones and distill it through a filter of pop-smart melodies and sing-along group choruses. The result is a V8 engine of run-you-over pure rock energy and a frenzied performance that actually precedes their music in reputation.
In person, singer and front (mad)man Wiebe is a study in contrast. Soft-spoken and almost overly polite, he is nothing like his onstage persona. After he called me by the wrong name on the phone, he began to apologize profusely. "Next time you see me, please hit me," he implored. I told him it was no big deal, but he wouldn't stop. After a while, I considered taking him up on his offer.
So how does such a courteous young man become a menace behind the mike? He claims his transformation is the result of being bitten "by a radioactive armadillo" and that his rafter-hanging, stack-climbing antics are a result of not having health insurance. Put simply: "I can't afford therapy."
A heart-stopping show doesn't come cheap, either; the band might do well to look into group medical coverage. The list of Gambler injuries reads like a rugby-match wrap-up. After a 2001 NYC show, Wiebe was rushed to the hospital to get 14 stitches in his hand. Their 2003 SXSW set left him with a severe concussion. Last fall in San Francisco, two songs into their set, bassist Pat Lillard caught an airborne microphone on its descent. With his mouth.
Several reconstructive surgeries (and medical bills) later, Lillard is mostly recovered. He's still missing a front tooth (he has a screw-in replacement), and his hard-won grin is doubtless among the band's most valuable assets. Hey, nobody said rock and roll was easy.
Even if their initial ascent was. The band spawned from the Denton house-party circuit in the late '90s. Wiebe, Fadi "Freddy Castro" El-Assad, Lillard and original members Colin Ambulance and Chris Adams--veterans of local acts such as Kid Chaos, the Sillies and the Skins--came together amid ruined renters' histories to make back-to-basics, balls-to-the-wall rock and roll. The response was immediate.
They played shows around Texas and self-released a 7-inch, "Jenna Is a No-Show," which still draws the most fervent live response. As word spread about their dynamic shows and straightaway rock styling, the band found a larger audience.
Years of honing their chops have turned out a tight, seemingly effortless sound, which helped to land them a sweetheart deal in the world of garage-rock when Gearhead Records, home of Swedish sensations The Hives, released their second album last year.
Capturing the spirit of a band whose appeal lies largely on the stage is no easy task. Fortunately, the Gamblers enlisted an able candidate to help: producer Tim Kerr. Austin's Kerr, known for playing with underground punk legends such as The Big Boys and Monkeywrench, lends a stamp of garage-cred that no major-label deal could touch. "He keeps everything really raw," Wiebe says.
The result, Something to Crow About, is a slim, 13-track onslaught of fast-paced rock. It's the kind of record that leaves your heart racing, with songs lingering in your head for days. The only track that left me scratching my head was "Lottie Mae," a fuzzed-out, surf-like, retro ballad that left me singing the Sesame Street anthem "Which of these things is not like the others?" But a curve thrown into a straight path isn't always a bad thing.
The band, whose current lineup includes Wiebe, El-Assad, Lillard, Mark Ryan (formerly of the Reds) and Jesse 3X, recently returned from a five-week European tour and headlined a showcase with labelmates The Hives at SXSW last month. After their show at the Gypsy Tea Room on Saturday, they'll be back on the road, touring the East Coast and Midwest for the remainder of the month. They have a new full-length album being released by Vilebeat Records this summer and extensive tour plans for the United States, Europe again and Japan. Above and beyond all of that, Wiebe says his main goal is to "keep teaching people about the 'truth'."
Amen, brother. Just remember that the truth might be accompanied by a flying mike stand.