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Spanking Good: The musical innovations of the best are revived by the Asylum Street Spankers.

Old, Weird Americana

Austin's Asylum Street Spankers play the music of the 1920s

By Richard von Busack

IF THERE'D BEEN ANY JUSTICE, the Asylum Street Spankers would have been the only band to survive the millennium. The all-acoustic and unamplified band was perfectly positioned to endure Y2K. Even though society failed to break down, the Spankers are continuing in their electricity-free performances, like their upcoming appearance at the Bankers Club in San Jose, March 30, in connection with Fuel 44's "Gypsy Cinema" performance. The Austin band, usually consisting of about a dozen traveling members, performs a live soundtrack for Charles Chaplin's The Gold Rush (1925), which they'll follow up with a live show.

The 1920s were the most exciting of all musical decades in the last century. The advent of radio and record players uncorked regional music from all corners of the USA. An explosion of styles in blues, jazz, country and folk cross-pollinated popular music. But the 1920s were the first and last stand of the music of what Greil Marcus has called "the old, weird America." After the initial period of discovery, nationwide mass-marketing pioneered the kind of musical donkey-vomit homogeneity that we're used to today.

The Asylum Street Spankers, who know their old records, are masters of more styles of 1920s sweet, hot, old-time jazz, Hawaiian and blues music than most people have heard of. Shockingly versatile lead singer Christina Marrs is one of the great unknown white blues shouters, but she does an impressive Betty Boop voice, too. When I saw them at Berkeley's Freight and Salvage last year, she did a tender falsetto cover of the Billy Mayhew tune "It's a Sin to Tell a Lie" in the mode of Helen Kane. Turning on a dime, she followed it right up with a shouted-out version of the raspiest and most notorious song in the Spankers' repertoire: "Shave 'Em Dry." Hokum songs--the Hokum Boys' "Please Warm My Wiener" is one of the best--were the double-entendre songs that were the model for the unprintable tunes the South Park boys were doing in their Oscar-nominated film.

And there's so much else the Spankers do. The band includes Wammo, lead singer, and harmonica-ist, a brash wiseacre. Guy Forsyth is the guitar player that perhaps gives the band its name ("Spanker" was old-time jazz slang for someone who whapped the guitar strings). The Mysterious John is a kazooist and hokum artist in his own right, with a showstopping version of Cliff "Jiminy Cricket" Edwards' "I'm a Bear in a Lady's Boudoir." The Mysterious John performs a classic butt song called "Fanny," the lone instance I've ever heard the word "callipygian" used in a song. (The adjective means the idealized Greco-Roman classical ass as opposed to "steatopygian" a.k.a. Big Bertha Butt syndrome.)

The Spankers' newest record, Spanker Madness (Spanks-A-Lot Records), worsens the band's chances of being sold at Wal-Mart, since it's a CD in which every song is pro (soft) drugs. On "Wake and Bake," Marrs shows off her Boop voice; she growls through some pot-smoking viper blues on "It's Dry Down Here." Wammo's "Beer" is an ode to St. Cerveza's Day with the chorus "Beer, beer, beer, beer" sung to the tune of the "Westminster Quarters."

Marrs is anxious not to have the group's music tied to the swing craze, and it should be noted that the Spankers don't play music for dance, but music for listening. To someone who hasn't experienced the Spankers' anthology of '20s music, their performances are a surprise and shock.

Listening to the Asylum Street Spankers is akin to one of those dreams where you're crossing the threshold into the world's most perfect thrift shop, and it's 50-percent-off day. OK, they didn't turn out to be the only band to survive the collapse of Western civilization. At least, they prove you don't need electrical power to electrify an audience.

The Asylum Street Spankers perform Mar 30 at 8pm at the Bankers Club, 8 S. First St, San Jose. Tickets are $10. Call 408.295.7374 for more information.

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From the March 30-April 5, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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