The Riverboat Gamblers' Something to Crow About Turns 20

The album that made Austin's apex punks earns anniversary vinyl remaster

The Riverboat Gamblers at Emo's in 2005 (Photo by Ben Buhay)

"That's the one that put the band on the map," says Riverboat Gamblers guitarist Ian MacDougall of Something to Crow About, the second full-length release from Austin's apex punk outfit. Long out of print, Crow relaunches in a special 20th anniversary edition, pressed in three different colors of vinyl, on August 18 via the band's own GFFG Records. Local genius engineer Jack Control of Enormous Door Mastering breathes new life into the Tim Kerr-produced album.

Crow was released June 3, 2003, by Gearhead Records. The A-list garage/punk indie label run by former Maximum Rocknroll contributors Mike Lavella and Michelle Haunold previously broke the Hives' motorik garage hit "Hate to Say I Told You So." Big Boys/Poison 13 legend Kerr successfully transferred the Gamblers' incendiary live sound – 1969 Detroit protopunk invested with the ballistic energy of Japan's Teengenerate – to 1-inch tape at the late Sweatbox Studio in 2002.

Meanwhile, the still-Denton-based band's buzz grew steadily. Frequent visitors to town since a late-Nineties Blue Flamingo appearance, they made Beerland their de facto Austin HQ. Then-Rolling Stone writer David Fricke became an early champion, reviewing a typically explosive Emo's South by Southwest showcase in 2003, before declaring them one of the "Top 5 bands to break out at this year's SXSW" in 2006.

Jack Control’s remaster, only available on the new vinyl issue, sounds like it’s had a shower, a shave, and two cups of coffee.

"That was way outside of what we thought was possible, or what we were capable of," says guitarist Fadi El-Assad, who started the Riverboat Gamblers in Denton when he was 18 with bassist Patrick Lillard and singer/spectacle Mike Wiebe. "That's when we started getting a little bit of juice, and it started building and it felt really exciting at that time.

"None of us had stars in our eyes. There was nothing like, 'Oh yeah, we're going to make it now.' It was more of a confused flattery. Like, 'Are they really into this? All right, cool.' It was more of that kind of attitude than anything else. But we were young and ready to do it, so we were like, 'Let's give it a shot.'"

A few years earlier, Lillard, El-Assad, and Wiebe were enthralled with what the singer calls "the Gilman Gold Rush, when all the Lookout and Epitaph stuff was blowing the fuck up." Denton was alive with young bands playing an active house show circuit, everyone playing in everyone else's bands several times over. Lillard approached El-Assad about doing something "more big rock/rock & roll/garage rock." El-Assad played with Wiebe in two other bands, both desiring to rock harder. Wiebe says they bonded over discovering the source of Nineties group Teengenerate's name was a song by NYC punk pioneers the Dictators – which led them to the latter act's 1978 Bloodbrothers album and the path ultimately chosen.

Kerr produced the Gamblers' first two albums. "I have always thought that band was great," he writes via text message. "[Crow] was recorded how I/we did all the recordings [at Sweatbox]: Basic tracks live, no headphones."

El-Assad recalls one song during the Crow sessions not going well. Kerr told them to take a break, drink some beer, then come back and try again. They finally got it, but the guitarist remained skeptical.

"I said, 'That's not how it's supposed to go.' His reply always stuck in my head, and I think about this – about life events, about music, anything: 'What do you mean that's not the way it's supposed to go? That's the way it went.'"

Crow was the first widely distributed evidence of the band's flamethrower superiority. They still play nearly half of its 13 songs live: "What's What," "Rattle Me Bones," "Ice Water," "Save You," "Lottie Mae," "Last to Know." According to El-Assad, "Sparks & Shots" returned during recent gigs. The album also transformed them, per Wiebe, into "road dogs extraordinaire.

Another Riverboat Gamblers show in 2005 (Photo by John Anderson)

"I think we'd done one tour beforehand," says the lead vocalist, speaking on a break from writing new material for the Gamblers and his other project, Drakulas. "But that was the record that opened us up to really kind of living on the road for a while there."

The 2003-2005 Crow tours also brought an 18-year-old MacDougall to the band, shoving him into the tour van shortly after his high school graduation, upon guitarist Colin "Ambulance" O'Donnell's exit. Previously in '77-style punk band the Kicks, then-tour manager Bryan McClellan advised him: "No creepers, no skinny ties, no neon shirts, any of that shit." MacDougall has remained in the band's core since, alongside Wiebe, El-Assad, and bassist Rob Marchant, who replaced Lillard in 2007. Drummer Sam Keir came aboard in 2010, leaving after three years to become a firefighter, but returning in 2021. He's remained drumming since.

All that touring made a machine out of the Gamblers by the summer of 2006, the year Alternative Press magazine declared them one of the "100 Bands You Need to Know." Their van rode behind tour buses holding X and Rollins Band, as they traversed America with the L.A. punk legends in support of To the Confusion of Our Enemies, the Gamblers' first LP under their new contract with skateboard manufacturer Volcom's short-lived record label. That July, they were the first live act I got to see upon returning to town after several years away.

I honestly had no idea how either X or Henry Rollins would be able to follow them at Stubb's that night. The Gamblers clearly absorbed everything MC5 and the Clash taught them, but with more demonic energy than either in their prime. And Wiebe put life and limb on the line every night.

"I was on a real mission, back then," he acknowledges. "It had to be a more intense show than everybody else. Sometimes that was more like, 'How can I physically hurt myself rather than sing alright.' I had a lot of injuries. I was constantly in and out of the ER with some kind of new break or laceration or something."

"It was like that onstage, and honestly it was like that offstage," chuckles El-Assad. "Recklessness was sort of the engine that was powering the band at that time."

After Stubb's, it wasn't their new LP I purchased as my first Riverboat Gamblers LP. It was Crow. Such is that record's power: It defined them, even then. It led to their Austin relocation, MacDougall's membership, their road seasoning – virtually everything.

After a long absence, it's back. Control's remaster, only available on the new vinyl issue, sounds like it's had a shower, a shave, and two cups of coffee. The Riverboat Gamblers support their ultimate creation's rebirth with a to-be-announced series of shows presenting Crow live, in full, in sequence, plus other select tunes. Their first studio album since 2012's The Wolf You Feed is forthcoming, as well as a live album. But for now, the Riverboat Gamblers celebrate the album that made them.

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The Riverboat Gamblers, Ian MacDougall, Jack Control, Tim Kerr, Gearhead Records, David Fricke, Fadi El-Assad, Patrick Lillard, Mike Wiebe

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