Road-tested traveling troubadours the Asylum Street Spankers are back, taking the show on the road and doing the inevitable. After 15 years, the Spankers have finally released their first live album in high, two-disc style. Capitalizing on their hard-to-define sound comprised of folk, ragtime, country, blues, and a general “old-timey” nature colored with a rather punkish ethos, the octet stamps this mixture all over with a heavy imprint of comedy. It’s a natural fit to find the Asylum Street Spankers, who are very vaudeville in their approach, in their element during a two-week engagement at New York’s Barrow Street Theatre in the off-Broadway West Village district.
Appropriately named for a classic vaudeville punchline delivered by the guy with the dirtiest job, What? And Give Up Showbiz? features the band serving up first-hand accounts of life on the road sprinkled into their jam-packed set. Detailing these trials, “Gig From Hell” puts a spin on the grand tradition of storytelling in folk music: the group conversationally recounts pitfalls and pit stops to the audience.
The songs on the double-disc set are culled from the wealth of albums from the Spankers’ near-decade and a half in the biz. Longtime fans may be surprised that some classics are all but omitted from this live show. The band, however, takes a rather novel approach to blowing off requests for songs that they’ve deemed played out. Laying down the law to their audience, the band launches into a “Medley of Burned Out Songs”, containing snippets of the songs that the Spankers are arguably most widely known for. The Spankers demand that the audience not request “The Pussycat Song”, “Scrotum Song”, and “Stick Magnetic Ribbons on Your SUV”, and they avoid having to play the three in their entirety by lading out succinct servings of a few verses strung together in the piece. (Fans still jonesing for an intact helping of a favorite will be happy to see a video clip of “Stick Magnetic Ribbons on Your SUV” included as a bonus feature on the second disc.)
What fans do get, however, is a mixed bag showing off the Asylum Street Spankers’ full range of stylistic interpretations and original material. There’s a definite “jam band” appeal to the Spankers. While it’s not the Phish-y sort of pot brownie-flavored neo-psychedelica, it’s not entirely based on improv jazz, either. Much closer to the latter, “Big Noise from Winnetka” employs this facet of the band to full effect, and bass and percussion clang this bad boy home. Other pieces that turn into full-blown jams give each Spanker a crack at the solo spotlight, allowing them to take turns with their instrument of choice at the forefront of the track. “Since I Met You Baby” is replete with stylistic name-dropping thrown into the mix, while “Asylum Street Blues” makes the mandolin as the song’s star.
While each member gets their due, Christina Marrs’ versatile voice plays a major part in the group’s distinctive sound. Marrs switches gears from full-throttle belter mode on “Blue Prelude” to a girlishly Betty Boop affectation on “Monkey Rag”. She then takes it full circle by channeling her best Peggy Lee on the jazzy, beatnik-y “Breathin’” and back again into funny girl territory.
Potty-mouthed politicking on their a cappella rendition of “My Country’s Calling Me” and “My Baby in the CIA” showcase the gleefully subversive side of the Spankers. Reminiscent of a postmodern “Ghost Riders in the Sky”, “Winning the War on Drugs” and the runaway freight train sound of “Beer” espouse their myriad of drugs of choice in their live set.
While much of the Spankers’ material is clever in terms of lyrics and arrangements, this double-disc set isn’t without its dead spots. “Leaf Blower” is a repetitive series of sounds that overstays its welcome—but it still rings true in a very stream-of-consciousness sort of way. “The Bus Story”, however, is almost devoid of redemption. It drags on for seven minutes and underscores just how tediously unfunny in-jokes between band members can be for the audience. The end effect is reminiscent of that co-worker who corners you on your way to the bathroom and bombards you with minutiae when you really have to go.
Other tracks like “Hick Hop”, lead singer Whammo’s offering from his solo album, are novel but still manage to seem somewhat pretentious, even in their base humor. Blending country with gangster rap, “Hick Hop” is funny. But no one would admit to finding the concept as amusing if it were done (as it has been before) by the Bloodhound Gang.
All gripes aside, the Spankers’ musicianship is as airtight as you can get—flawless, even. Like any good minstrel show, there’s a mixture of music, comedy, and social commentary to round out the set, which brings the live experience home loud and clear.
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