Spankin' Material

With songs about marijuana and Christmas, the Asylum Street Spankers combine old American music forms with a postmodern sensibility

Asylum Street Spankers

Off Broadway

Friday, Nov. 23

Although this is their third visit to St. Louis, few of us can unambiguously describe the Austin, Texas-based Asylum Street Spankers. The band falls neatly within no categories yet shares attributes of nearly all musical traditions. Vaudevillian multi-instrumentalists every one of them, the Spankers have earned the adoration of fans worldwide as ambassadors of "inspired lunatic brilliance" -- the description favored by founding member Christina Marrs. The Asylum Street Spankers put together an astounding performance, one difficult to translate (both into words and onto vinyl -- or whatever we call it these days -- aluminum?). The songs draw from the American musical diaspora -- jazz, country, ragtime, blues, Hawaiian slack-key, swing, bluegrass and gospel -- but they're also colored by the postmodern sensibility of slam poet Wammo (lead Spanker vulgarian), whose interests range from scrotums to bottoms to weed and beer.

Begun nearly eight years ago as a musical collective of sorts, the Spankers have evolved into an institution, hosting more than 35 members throughout their history. Most of the time, the lineup ranges from seven at its smallest to 11 at its largest. As the band's membership evolves, so do its musical frontiers, although that certain je ne sais quoi that defines the Spankers sound remains a constant. As one of the only all-acoustic (no mics, no amplifiers) bands that don't sit on stools and drone about saving the world, the Spankers have no electric gizmos to hide behind. The quality of their sound is never surrendered to a soundman and often not to a producer, either; only two of the group's six releases have been recorded in a studio. As Marrs and Wammo insist, such an approach reveres "real" sound as interaction between instrument and flesh, as a purely human emanation that cuts the mediation to a minimum.

Perhaps the Spankers' most infamous release is their Spanker Madness, 11 of 12 tracks of which are dedicated to the joys of boo, tea, dope, grass, ganja, chiba, the doob -- whatever street you're on, the Spankers tender accolades to the joys of almighty marijuana. Players sing and holler celebrations that irreverently send up, while seriously critiquing, America's war on drugs (now replaced by our war on terrorism -- what an opportunity for the Spankers' next record!). The group has four other albums besides this one, each structured loosely around a theme or concept while taking advantage of a massive repertoire.

The group's newest release, A Christmas Spanking, cashes in on both Jesus' and Wammo's birthdays. Selected from shows performed last Christmas in Austin and Houston, this album swings from jazz and blues tunes to covers of animated classics, drawing on some time-honored holiday favorites arranged in fearless Spankers fashion. Perhaps the most notable riffs are "Silent Night" and "Red Nosed Rudolph Blues." The former is a surprisingly touching rendition of this classic hymn on Marrs' saw. At just over a minute, the tune manages to engage the listener immediately by way of its familiar melody while surprising with the depth of its quivering soulfulness. The latter is newly arranged by Wammo, who mixed the Johnny Marks classic with Muddy Waters-styled blues, reinterpreting such simple lyrics as "Then how the reindeer loved him/They shouted out with glee/Man, your nose is messed up/ But you'll go down in history"; underscored by an extended harmonica solo, the song fluently mixes the two traditions with remarkable success, bringing holiday joy to all. The album also makes history with Marrs and Wammo's first recorded duet, a deliciously naughty "Baby, It's Cold Outside" on which Marrs' Boopesque teasing is matched by Wammo's leering croon. The 15 tracks will keep revelers in the mood for whatever Christmas cheer they have planned. (And don't forget that one of the street terms identified by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, the nation's chief anti-drug agency, is "Christmas tree" for marijuana, amphetamines or depressants. Ho, ho, ho.)

But because they're playing here before Thanksgiving, the Spankers aren't likely to be singing tunes exclusively from their newest release. Touring as a mere septet, they may not crowd the stage as much as usual, but the performance won't suffer as a result. Because they play without amplification, the band requires listeners to pay attention (read: shut up and listen). And audiences seem to want to do exactly that, realizing that they're in the presence of something radically different from the usual bar band. Such attention doesn't make for a sedate show, however -- far from it. Carefully pacing their show according to the crowd's liquor consumption, the Spankers incorporate an element of improv and crowd interaction so that by the second set, audience members become active participants in sing-a-longs and even help the band draft lyrics on the fly. As Marrs explains, "We've done songs that were entirely improvised, songs where Wammo would get a word from an audience member and then we'd write a song around that word. We did something recently where we would ask for unlikely song titles from the audience and a style to do it in and then a key to do it in, and then we'd improvise an entire song, with Wammo singing lyrics."

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