With local performances that date back to the summer of 1996, has Lexington been able to succinctly sum up the music and performance strategies of the Asylum Street Spankers?
No? Then, let’s give it a try right here. Take an acoustic troupe of Austin, Tx. musicians with a taste for blues, ragtime, gospel, vintage country and more. Toss in songs that encompass everything from children’s tunes to bits of very, very, very adult humor (sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll only begin to encompass the latter). Now, unleash all that onstage with a vaudevillian air that is anything but nostalgic. You now have at least a suggestion of why a Spankers performance is unlike anything you have ever witnessed – unless, of course, you’re part of the devout fanbase that has followed the band’s shows in Lexington over the past 12 years.
“It’s truly a remarkable thing that this band has been together for so long,” said the Spankers co-founder, co-vocalist and washboard ace that goes by the name of Wammo. Just Wammo.
“Before this, I never had a band last more than eight months. Well, except my first band back when I was 16. They rehearsed for a year, played one gig and broke up. We didn’t know what the hell we were doing.”
As it was a regular at the long-defunct Lynagh’s Music Club and the more recently demolished Dame location on West Main, Lexington has gotten to know a lot about the Spankers’ music over the years, from Christina Marrs’ musical saw interludes to Wammo’s affectionate mix of Appalachian murder ballads and gangster rap (on Hick Hop, a tune as mischievous as its name) to such curious social sing-a-long tunes as Winning the War on Drugs and Beer to covers of the blues chestnut Got My Mojo Workin’ , Harry Nilsson’s Think About Your Troubles and The B-52s’ Dance This Mess Around.
Not coincidentally, most of those moments are captured on a new double-disc concert album with a title that borrows from the performance tradition and vernacular the Spankers long ago embraced: What? And Give Up Show Biz?
The record was cut last January when the band, with the help of two alumni members (clarinetist Stanley Smith and violinist/emcee Korey Simeone), performed a two week engagement at New York’s Barrow Street Theatre.
“That was a blast,” Wammo said of the residency. “First of all, you don’t have to load your gear everyday. The gear stays there. Then, of course, we had New York City to play around in for two weeks. It was big, big fun.”
As Show Biz was designed to chronicle an entire performance by the Spankers at that time, it boasts stories and between-song narratives that may prove insightful, entertaining and maybe even frightening for novice and die-hard fans alike.
One such instance is titled The Bus Story, a seven-minute tale that details how Wammo and the rest of the Spankers encountered near-death experiences while separately enroute to the same gig. Clocking in at just over a minute is Gig From Hell, a radio theatre style scrapbook of nightmare performance moments that includes roaches scattering from stage monitors, band members climbing fire escapes with their gear to get to the stage and audiences that chatter incessantly on cell phones during quiet songs.
“Ah, yes,” Wammo said. “The gigs from hell. We’ve played our share of them, I tell you. Every moment of that story is true.”
Of course, the one thing that is continually new about the Spankers whenever the band plays Lexington is its lineup. Augmenting the core group of Wammo, guitarist Nevada Newman and mandolinist Charlie King will be three new players: bassist Morgan Patrick Thompson, drummer Mark Henne and violinist Jakob Breitbach, who goes by the stage name of Famous Jake.
The big difference this time, though, is who won’t be with the Spankers – namely, Marrs. No, the only original Spanker other than Wammo hasn’t split from the ranks. But as she is soon expecting her third child, Marrs has bowed out of the Spankers’ final tour of 2008.
So to compensate for her temporary absence, Wammo and the remaining Spankers will be resurrecting some of the band’s earliest material. Which brings to mind another highlight from Show Biz – something called Medley of Burned Out Songs, a mausoleum of tunes Wammo and Marrs simply got sick of playing.
“Yeah, we’re going to be doing some of those songs, too, along with some of the really old ones like Funny Cigarette (from the band’s 1996 studio debut album, Spanks for the Memories). We’re also going to be singing some of Christina’s songs. Working them up has been a lot of fun.”
Wammo said sessions will begin in December on the next Spankers record, which will be devoted to blues material. “But it will be a Spankers version of a blues album, not the typical white boy blues stuff.”
“When you get down to it, we’re very permissive. Christina and I have to be the bosses. But all that means is that we try to keep everything in line as far as rehearsals go. We don’t really tell anyone in the band what they can or cannot do. That can be tough in a way, because when you’re putting a band together, you’re essentially constructing a family. But you haven’t really grown up with these people, so you don’t know what their idiosyncrasies are. You have to get use to their weirdnesses, their smells, all the human aspects that come along with working and traveling with somebody.
“Most of the time, though, the Spankers are all chiefs and no Indians.”
Asylum Street Spankers perform at 10 p.m. tonight at Natasha’s Bistro, 112 Esplanade. Cover charge is $15. For reservations, call (859) 259-2754