DVD REVIEW: Asylum Street Spankers: Re-Assembly - 10th Anniversary Reunion Concert

The Asylum Street Spankers have a pretty complicated, sophisticated recipe going on, but for a useful framework you could consider them an artsy highbrow vaudeville act. You might think of them as Hee Haw for an NPR audience.

For one thing, vaudeville would go with the time line and stylistic range. They have a perfectly modern sensibility, but they lean to songs and stylings of the 30s and 40s- all acoustic, eschewing the "demon electricity." Plus, they put a strong emphasis on comedic material that could be thought of as novelty music.

But like Homer and Jethro (specifically name-checked), Hee Haw or Spike Jones, the Spankers' bawdy humor and stage antics are an indirect but strong form of bragging. Look, these Asylum Street Spankers are some sick, twisted bastards, but the sonsabitches know how to play. They know that when they pick up their instruments, they're going to give some artistic throw weight to all manner of shtick. They don't have to act like they're serious musicians.

Guy Forsyth can carry on joking around and pulling faces all day, but when he turns loose with the steel guitar playing "If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day," he rains down razor sharp shards of blues judgment that will put the fear of God into an atheist. Thus the best moments for repeat viewing are not the highly entertaining and personable shtick, but watching him concentrating during a solo. This is as good a performance of this Robert Johnson standard as I've heard.

They also get some of the vaudeville feel from their use of novelty instruments. It's not good enough for a Spanker to say they played a kazoo, though. Wammo can actually make the thing carry a tune, and get a unique voice out of it. He actually plays that washboard contraption. That ukulele ain't just for show.

Asylum Street Spanker Wammo

Moreover, by Spanker logic, they mostly don't make a big deal of the unusual instruments, they just pick up a saw and a bow and start playing their part. They appear to have at least three people who can play a saw. Miss Christina gets a particularly good spooky saw solo during the Cold War paranoia of "UFO Attack." ("Robot monsters in my underwear!")

This DVD is the recording of an August 2004 performance at the Texas Union Theater in Austin, which was something of a homecoming for all kinds of alumni Spankers. That's slightly problematic during the first set, when they're busy working in the old crew. Every single individual on the stage was a playin' sumbitch, but it was perhaps a bit too much of a good thing trying to shoehorn them all in.

It'd be nice to see them do shows with a core band and one or two of the larger crew at a time. I'd love to see a whole show with Christina and Wammo and the current core group, and featuring this Django Porter, for example. He was playing some sweet licks on "T'Ain't Nobody's Business," but it was just enough to make me want to hear what else the guy can do. Noting his name on at least a couple of the songs, it'd be good to get a full show dose of Pops Bayless.

Most of all though, we need more Stanley Smith. He's the old dude here, a groovy hipster and their obvious mentor of coolness. He doesn't put on near the shtick that some of them do, but he knows his stuff. Ol' Stanley and his clarinet give the Spankers the crucial New Orleans element. He can also do some fair scattin'. Bringing in the Benny Goodman/Charlie Christian cut "A Smooth One" was a really fine flavor, and just the right cleansing of the palette between the comedic material.

The high class jazz of Stanley Smith runs straight into the brick wall of Wammo's crazed cracker country roots. Of course, his idea of country tends toward stuff like "Lee Harvey." He managed to dig up an obscure sentimental song narrated by a kid in 1963 who can't believe that Lee Harvey Oswald shot the president, cause he was a nice fellow who used to take him fishing. It's a fine, catchy barroom singalong detailing specific objections to the pictures and documentation against Oswald- "back, and to the left!"

Along with Wammo, Christina Marrs is the main constant member of the group, and really the head of the outfit. She's listed as musical director, and just generally obviously the queen bee. She may be the only woman in the group, but that's plenty enough.

Miss Christina is a lot of woman. Besides her inspiring physical presence, she's about the singingest chick around. She can do the cutesy Betty Boop pop stuff, or she could go all Billie Holliday on you. When she gets to channeling that deep inner pool of womanhood out through that impressively controlled and expressive vocal instrument, she's the hottest bitch in Texas- at least for as long as it takes to sing "Got My Mojo Working." The subjugation of the boys for her doo wop chorus line was just a bonus to the visceral rightness of their actual harmony singing. The queen bee inspires performance.

The topic of this queen bee wrapping the menfolk around her finger brings us to "If You Want Me To Love You," her duet with Guy Forsyth. I'm not previously familiar with this song (or about half the outside material here), but this is credited to Tampa Red with additional lyrics by Christina and Guy. This jazzy blues battle of the sexes would go head to head even with the similarly styled classic Ada Brown-Fats Waller classic "That Ain't Right" from the Stormy Weather soundtrack. That's pretty good company right there. By the time they get done adding in the kazoo, the saw, clarinet and washboard, they're out in their own land.

A few words of concern must be expressed for this new kid they have playing fiddle. He bills himself as "Sick," and he's got a big, silly mohawk. Usually, to me a mohawk means a punk rock poser, but this kid is obviously the exception that proves the rule. He ain't no non-playing Sid Vicious idiot. Watch him bearing down during "Superchief" say, and you'll know that he's about playin'. Also, it might tell you something about the Spankers that the kid with the mohawk is probably the least sick and perverted person on the stage.

Sick fiddle player

But I fear that he won't stay that way by hanging around with this crew. For starters, consider "My Favorite Record." They get a cool creative juxtaposition putting Christina's 40s pop music sound and dropping in the disparate elements, like a quick bar of "Rhapsody in Blue." (The impressive thing there is the seamless integration.) But then there's Wammo at the end, leading Sick and the others in beautiful barbershop harmonies as they sing all-too-enthusiastically about going to the "rotten c*&#suckers ball" to play a little game called "tag."

But if that's not enough corrupting influence on young Master Sick, they have all kinds of songs openly celebrating the joys of the weed from Hell. Indeed they have a whole album of Spanker Madness. At least four different members have original songs on the subject. Pops Bayless contributes "Funny Cigarette." The dreaded Korey Simeone apparently wrote "Gettin' High" as his first assignment on joining the band years ago. That's pretty good. Miss Christina gets some of that peculiar 40s Betty Boop pop sound that's really her own modern creation with the domestic bliss of "Wake and Bake." Of the dope songs, I'd probably give the nod to Wammo's visit to "Amsterdam" on grounds of having the most unique sonic texture. Anyway you look at it though, they're just not setting a good example for the kid.

A bit of praise must also be payed to the last song of the first set, a Wammo-Guy song called "Whatever." It's a fine, earnest little pop song declaring pure commitment to any goofy pinko crap about recycling or peace that comes out of the girl's mouth, whatever it takes to get her into bed. What's really memorable though is the psychedelic ending they concocted for this hippy foolishness, doing a Spanker version of the famous false fade and coda at the end of "Strawberry Fields Forever." This minute of stage time was a pretty impressive and expressive display of creativity for an all-acoustic band. Plus, it gives Wammo the opportunity to sing "Turn me on, dead man" over and over.

groovy psychedelic ASS picture

Now, the Asylum Street Spankers make some fine audio CDs, but a DVD (this one in particular) is the preferred medium. I feel a bit like Lance in Pulp Fiction selling Vincent on the monster smack. Asylum Street Spankers CDs are real, real, real good stuff.

But the DVD catches the impact of their live vaudeville act in a way that the audio alone can't. [See the Re-assembly photo gallery] You really need to SEE what kind of quivering wreck Christina has reduced Guy to by the end of "If You Want Me To Love You." You really need to see Guy and Wammo serving up the "Harp Rumble" in each others faces to quite get the male bonding thing they're doing.

And an audio CD would not properly catch the bonding with the audience in the closing number. Guy and Wammo make it into audience participation, generating new verses for "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead You Rascal You" based on suggested rhymes from the audience.

All I'm saying is that you need this DVD if you're into music. Just don't be dropping this hardcore stuff on some unsuspecting pantywaist Garth Brooks fan, and show up with them overdosing on my lawn. Thanks.

Da official Asylum Street Spankers website

ASYLUM STREET SPANKERS RE-ASSEMBLY PICTURES  2  3  4  5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12





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