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Published: 2004/05/29
by Benjy Eisen

Sideshow Fez- Asylum Street Spankers

(Spanks a Lot Records / Buffalo Records)
Well now that’s interesting. A weird acousto-freak band from Texas has just made a truly psychedelic rag-grass DVD. Sideshow Fez is a live concert video of the Asylum Street Spankers filmed at a sold-out ballroom in Portland, Oregon last summer. And, like the namesake, it really is quite spanking.
An all-acoustic ensemble (the only microphones in the ballroom belong to the film crew) with a cast that has evolved endlessly over the past decade, these eight Spankers play traditional American roots music on traditional instruments with a fairly traditional approach. It sounds traditional too. Yet, there is something ultra-modern about the Asylum Street Spankers, like they are revivalists who just can’t stick with the program. They approach the music of the early part of the last century with the attitude of late-century pranksters. If Willie Nelson is what happens when a Texan smokes weed, the Spankers are what happens when Texans take acid.
Consider some of their song titles: "The Scrotum Song," "Tripping Over You," "Winning the War on Drugs," and "Hick Hop." Furthermore, a faithful cover of "Hokey Pokey" comes off sounding as natural (and non-hokey) as teases of Black Sabbath and Spinal Tap. None of this is very likely, yet here it is.
Without electric amplification, the instruments including ukulele, fiddle, washboard, clarinet, dobro, harmonica, banjo, mandolin, and crosscut saw bleed together to create the squashy one-dimensional mash often heard on old vinyl. This gives the Spankers an authentic, antiquated sound that is so outdated it sounds, well, fresh. And the low-key but well-planned theatrical presentation of this music gives the Asylum Street Spankers a hip credibility that is impossible to fake, feign, or forge. This is sincere stuff.
The Spankers are not punching the walls of instrumental limitations or anything, but they do fuse compatible genres and traditions into an entertaining mix that is part old-timey, part Moulin Rouge, part variety show, part cabaret, and part jamgrass. The theatrical presentation is an important part of their whole shtick, but so is the band’s honest tunefulness. Without being processed or equalized or mixed from a soundboard, frontman Wacco’s voice is as naked as Traci Lords in "Big Guns" and it still has amazing depth and power.
As far as the film itself is concerned, Sideshow Fez is a remarkably artful ordeal. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been watching too many low-budget DIY videos lately, but the camerawork on here is appreciated for its craft, and the editing and direction are both distinguished as well. While the performance aesthetic demands a constant feeling of spontaneity, it was ghostwritten with much-appreciated advance thought this is not just another Spankers gig, even though it is meant to appear that way. It was filmed during a 15-hour shoot, and later went into weeks of post-production editing. Everything was well planned and it was treated like a long-form music video, not just a cut-and-distribute concert film.
The Leftover Salmon of old-timey music also a hipster’s take on hickville the Asylum Street Spankers could possibly become more famous for this DVD than any of the CDs in their 10-year history. More likely to be played in a dorm room at NYC than in Grandpa’s living room, it’s going to continue to be played in mine.

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