- Asylum Street Spankers Re-Assembly 10th Anniversary Reunion Concert
Greil Marcus’s Old Weird America is alive and well in the new DVD, Re-Assembly, a 29-song, two-set, tenth anniversary reunion of twenty past and present players in the legendary Austin, Texas NO AMPLIFICATION collection of potheads and alcoholics called Asylum Street Spankers. Let’s get a couple things out of the way first. Most of their songs center on the pleasure of being high, staying high, down-and-out low life characters, old blues and country folk and raucous brothel tunes straight out of the scene in The Band’s The Last Waltz where singer and drummer, Levon Helm said that late in the evening, after midnight, the songs would get a little bolder and dirtier and raunchier as the crowd would get more fucked up. Remind you of the scene we inherited in the jamband world? Well, it should as the Asylum Street Spankers definitely offer a slice of Grateful Dead-type nostalgia for a timeless era that has never vanished. Instead, the nostalgia is for those characters that tend toward outlaw status. My drug of choice is hard liquor and, whereas, the Spankers appear more interested in weak American beer and pot, they do encourage activities that make live music that much more surreal and exciting.
The other attribute that is critical is that the music is played without any electric amplification. Essentially, the rotating band of players fronted by the boisterous pipes and extraordinary Americana musicianship of Christina Marrs with the group party animal and lead showman, Wammo play their instruments with veteran chops and vocals that require no microphones or anything else for that matter. Now, hate to be in the minority, but when PHISH (all capitals, you see, beseeching the Jam Gods [and Page McConnell] until the Jam Kings return and we can go back to Capital P’ and lowercase hish’), pulled out their own non-amp, a cappella versions of trad standard songs, these moments equated to bladder and booze breaks for this writer. The thing was that Phish didn’t offer much new material when they dug up these old chestnuts. Alas, “Grind,” the last song on the last album, Undermind, would feature a slice of a cappella joy the inside joke of inside jokes betwixt Phishmen and Phishhead.
When the Spankers are dishing out original material with a slice of Old Weird America laced with a blurry-headed amazing gracial rift, everything works from the lyrics, to the many solos, to the tight and taut locked-in chord progressions. Their endless parade of backroom, pool hall wit-spewed music and Bourbon Street musicians are featured with warmth and bawdy passion on Re-Assembly. However, my live vet eyes glazed over and my ears went tone deaf when the band dug into old covers written by post-slave and poverty-ridden Desolation Row characters because the Spankers rang hollow and false. Their versions resemble smug gestures by musicians who may know (and probably still do, playing hundreds of shows a year) very hard times but the lyrics and delivery don’t have the sad, sincere, heartbreaking pathos that one would expect. When Garcia sang about an old Wharf Rat, I believed that he really was that character, that he lived every second of the theatrical experience. With the Spankers, the lyrics seem to be clever window dressing wedded to their onstage shenanigans and awe-inspiring musicianship that is somewhat buoyed by pure genius but, often, weighted down by the Master just rolling through the hourglass until the next joint is lit, the next beer bottle cracked open.
And maybe that’s the point of the ye young and olde Spanker posse. Their take on jug band, hip-hop, folk and country blues is decidedly upbeat, glorious, and (gasp) professional with snatches of sublime musicianship especially, when Stanley Smith on clarinet, vocals and guitar is on stage or Olivier Giraud appears on guitar and musical saw (a very unappreciated [and cheap] instrument that is also played with amazing chutzpah and grace by musical director, Christina Marrs). However, some of their parenthesis within parenthesis inside joke performances are a bit too much of a nod and a wink’ to warrant further examination. The crowd does get it but IT seems more square and geeky foreplay than an actual 60-Minute Man embedded in sweat and sex with whiskey bottles, one-hitters and candles nearby and Robert Johnson on the devilish turntable.