City: Austin, Texas Venue: The Parish Date: 2004-01-30
Asylum Street Spankers
When I entered the Parish, to my surprise, its open air rock club atmosphere had been altered with rows and rows of folding chairs. The cozy, contracted setup was designed to knit the audience into a closer fold so that we could better hear the band. The Asylum Street Spankers don't believe in any mechanical amplification of their sound, jokingly referring to electricity as "demonism." While I never got around to asking one of them to toss me a rationale for their neo-Luddite performance demands, it wasn't hard to see the challenges and advantages of that approach. It was a promise of intimacy and pleasure premised on the unspoken handshake that people would listen quietly, turn off their cell phones, and pick up the shards of their attention span left in the mangler teeth of American culture. If there's one thing I learned from my ill-fated foray into stand up, it's that if people are going to starve their incessant egos by giving gold-standard focus, you'd better not suck.
Then there's the nudity of not having amps, mics and all the technological trappings that can readily be scapegoated for any fuck up. At least those that aren't caused by lousy audiences. Because everyone tacitly agreed to be silent, the room filled with the greedy expectation of entertainment, just as Mr. Cobain once wryly observed. Opener Matt the Electrician, bandless this night, managed with just an acoustic guitar to hold everyone rapt like a bunch of babies in front of dangling car keys. He sang a Danzig cover complete with heavy metal stage moves, spun side-splitting yarns about Rick Springfield and Mafioso house cats, and even introduced a sing-a-long children's song about giving your life over to Satan. During "Train", he found someone in the audience to beat box, and for "Little Hands" one of the Spankers joined him onstage for a tap dance solo. It's not easy to use humor in music without it being a sad substitute for skill or the artistic equivalent of a "bad touch" down there. Both Matt and the Spankers deploy comedy as mere filigree for their inarguably mad talents. Somehow, Matt filled the space with enough presence to make us think we were each being catered to, and that this evening was more than worth our hush. And it was.
As I was talking to Matt the Electrician before the show, he was talking about the difficulty of having a family and trying to support them as a struggling musician. I've always been too afraid to put it all on the line like that for writing, fearing security and stability, even though I fully know that the soul-scarring tedium of my day job daily robs me of much needed mojo. I'm impressed that someone is wise enough to realize that what children really need are parents who haven't copped out on life, parents who actually followed their dreams, and won't spend their life oppressively turning their kids into Jon Benets. I tell you this because, as I was watching the show, I kept thinking about how chickenshit I've been about certain aspects of my life. So I decided to get drunk, staving off a yet another dangerous epiphany.
The Asylum Street Spankers are an Austin treasure that I should have checked out a long time ago. Basically, they play this kind of ragtime jazzy music with old timey country undercurrents that you might expect to find in some prohibition speakeasy. Calling them a novelty act would be a crude oversight of their skill, passion, and their ability to serve up unbridled fun in foaming pints. But they are fucking funny. Just watching the band's faces is enough to split your cords, as they bug their eyes out, grin, and emote with contortions that would do Tex Avery proud. Not to mention their preference for reinterpreting songs by bands like the Beastie Boys and B-52s, so utterly remaking them in the Spanker image that they cease to be recognizable. Their live act seems choreographed with uncanny precision, every funny aside and pinball barbershop harmony on Swiss time. Even the repartee, which comes off as pure spontaneity, hits the mark with all the skill and practice of a burlesque barker. Having been around for more than a decade in one incarnation or another certainly doesn't hurt, but I couldn't help but marvel at the seamless whole of their shtick.
When Christina Marrs sings, I swear I feel a love letter coming on. On both "Digga Digga Doo" and "Some of These Days" she calmly unleashed a voice that was like trickled tickle on my nether regions. I also like the fact that she has a way of looking pleasantly possessed, as if the music is the only thing animating her while she stares off into some distant horizon. Marrs has one of those voices made of pure muscular ease; she rarely needs to flex in order to show off. Wammo, the other lead singer, is the sort of guy that only Austin's surly mix of cosmopolitan Podunk could create. He looks like he should have a jug in one hand and a Houellebecq novel in the other. He sings like a b-boy Elvis. The finale of the first set had Wammo explaining the underexplored links between redneck murder ballads and gangsta rap, a hybrid ripe with the potential for cheeky satire. I wonder if 50 Cent would get the joke? He then launched into "Hick Hop", a rambling skoal-dipped threat taking on hip hop with a lasso and one finger up his nose.
I should have stayed for the second set, but any further drinking would have left me in sorry state of disrepair. I still had one of the best times in recent memory, a concert that left me warm, giddy and lit up in joy afterglow. It's refreshing to have entertainment that I didn't have to stoop for and music that demanded my attention with payment in kind.
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