Asylum Street Spankers

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Well, it was a Monday night, and Spinal Tap was playing Carnegie Hall, but the Asylum Street Spankers didn't seem to let it get them down. The Spankers never seem like they let much of anything get them down.

Returning to the Bottom Line for the first time in, well, a year, Austin's all-acoustic country/blues/jazz/skank/drugs/comedy/bebop hootenanny ensemble had, once again, almost completely revamped their lineup. Over the past five years, they say, they've had over 30 members, and the seven-piece group that played that night contained only three recognizable faces: Wammo, the big, bearded harmonica player in the cowboy hat, Christina Marrs, on uke, banjo, saw and guitar, singing as sweetly as ever in her Betty Boop-meets-Fanny Brice voice and the still-coolest of the Spankers, Stan.

Stan?who I would guess to be in his 60s now?is a tall man, slim as his clarinet, who dresses in Beatnik black and exchanges his reed for a beat-up guitar or a ukulele at a moment's notice. Something about him just seems mildly bemused by the fact that he's still traveling the country in a van, singing songs about pot to rooms full of the young people.

The rest of the group?on a variety of guitars, a trap kit and an upright bass?were as sharp as ever. Even if the faces weren't all that familiar, the music sure as hell was, and it was still lively, snappy and twisted. Most of the songs in the short set were from their latest album, Spanker Madness?like the Dylanesque lying-down blues of "Blade of Grass," and that raucous anthem for the ages, "Beer." Sprinkled in and around those, however, were a few older tunes, and a few weirdies. And scattered throughout those were snippets of everything from "Iron Man" (really something on the ukulele) to the "Cantina Band" number from Star Wars.

Though a good majority of their songs depend on the lyrics (even "Song With No Words"!), the most memorable piece they did Monday night was an instrumental. The Spankers, it seems, along with their regular touring, have also lately been performing live accompaniment to Charlie Chaplin's Gold Rush. The selection they played (a showcase for the singing saw) was for a scene in the film they described as "three guys and a dog in a cabin during a blizzard."

And it made sense.

They ended the show with a "Mah-na-mah-na" improvisation which made me very happy. The Spankers, I must say, remain one of the few bands around who can get a bunch of uppity New Yorkers to sing along?and sing along with vigor (which is a scary thing to witness). They got a little help that-a-ways, though, from their opening act, the Rev. Billy Wirtz. The Spankers always seem to choose their openers carefully and well. Last year it was New York's own Moonlighters, and now the Rev. Billy, from Daytona Beach. For those of you unfamiliar with him, think Mojo Nixon, should Mojo be able to play boogie-woogie blues piano really well (while lying on his back). At first, in fact, I thought I was watching the man Mojo stole his whole shtick from?only to discover later that they both started out about the same time.

Makes you wonder what sort of mutant space virus landed on Earth back in the early 1980s.

The good Reverend's "First House of Polyester Worship and Horizontal Throbbing Teenage Desire" extravaganza was, as you might guess, a verbal onslaught of comedy jokes, physical impressions (the subtle distinction between the Yanni and John Tesh head movement), eating, nastiness, masturbation euphemisms, angry biker stories and occasional songs. Actually, I'm not sure he ever got all the way through any one song (except a very nice "Phantom 309"-type number about Elvis, there near the end). And after a while, sure, you just want to smack him a good one?but I must say (going back to where all this started), you just gotta hand it to a guy who can get the entire audience at the Bottom Line to play the drum solo from "Wipeout" on their table tops during "Mennonite Surf Party."

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