Most of the time, when I hear the moniker “melodic punk,” “neo-punk” or “modern punk” added to a band’s description, I’m immediately turned off, or at least hesitant to see them. I’ll admit it – I’m biased. There are simply too many bands out there playing an overproduced, too clean and tight brand of “punk,” with sounds loosely based on bands like Sex Pistols, The Exploited and Stiff Little Fingers, but with little or no depth and often no substance – and you can catch more than you’d really want to on any installment of Vans’ Warped tours over the past decade.
I spent my adolescence and young adulthood chasing punk bands like those originals I mentioned above across the states (and some of them in Europe) to see them anytime I could. I trolled small record stores all over, buying everything I could get my hands on. After so many years, they’ve been a part of my mental soundtrack, so deeply imbedded that hearing some of the tunes subjects me to an involuntary trip back in time, to an angrier, more desperate time, with a distinct flavoring of Knickerbocker beer, Mad Dog 20/20, and angst. Call me a snob, but I have a hard time not hearing a bunch of kids ripping off the basic structure behind the punk, but leaving out the passion, and too often the talent.
Which is why I was so amped after seeing Texas band Riverboat Gamblers at Larimer Lounge last Tuesday night. Despite sharing nearly all of the characteristics that define many of the other bands in the melodic punk genre, Gamblers are head and shoulders above any I’ve heard in a while, both in skill and passion. Fronted by Mike Wiebe, along with his seemingly endless energy and charm, on vocals and Fadi el-Assad on lead guitar, the five piece put on a high octane, engrossing and fun set for about an hour on the Larimer’s low stage, and the packed back room did all they could (unsuccessfully) to egg the band on for another hour.
Ian MacDougall (guitar), Rob Marchant (bass) and Eric Green (drums) rounded out the band, and kept the band’s machine-gun rhythm constant, while Wiebe ran across the stage again and again, decked out in a dark shirt with tucked-in tie and slacks, repeatedly bouncing off the room’s north wall to expend even more excess energy. More than anything they reminded me of Hives, after being inoculated with a stiff dose of punk rock to add even more edginess to the powerpop.
As manic as the band appeared, the feeling in the room never felt out of control, and Wiebe’s charisma was largely responsible. Between coaxing the audience into wild singalongs during a setlist that included “A Choppy, Yet Sincere Apology,” “Hey! Hey! Hey!” and “Rattle Me Bones,” he simultaneously chided the situation and comforted the audience about our crumbling economy, and about how impressed he was that so many had come out on a Tuesday night. The highlight of the show had to be when Wiebe cajoled the crowd to crouch to their knees, and then come up screaming “G-A-M-B-L-E-R-S!!’ again and again, in an exercise that recalled the famous Otis Redding “Shout” movement from “Animal House,” but with a more punk-filled, happy angst.
I saw two of the three Denver bands that opened for Gamblers: Kill City Bombers (most of whom used to be in a local band called The Allergies a few years ago), and rising SoCal hardcore aficionados Pitch Invasion. Briefly: Pitch Invasion keeps climbing in the hearts and minds of the Denver scene by offering the most honest, bare-bones SoCal hardcore show the mile high city has to offer. At their sloppy best, Kill City Bombers reminded me of a stage full of Johnny Thunders clones, and they sounded nearly as wasted as Johnny did most of the time. Though that didn’t take anything away from a brilliant cover of Dead Boys’ “Flamethrower Love.”