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Austin's Asylum Street Spankers Aren't Just Unplugged, They're A Little Unhinged.

By Brendan Doherty

JUNE 14, 1999:  PLAY SOFTLY, AND carry a big sound. That's one way to describe Austin, Texas', 10-member Asylum Street Spankers. The rest of their strategy, if you can call it that, involves a wildly difficult co-mingling of schedules, personalities, eras and acoustic instruments--a lot of acoustic instruments.

"It's your grandma's music," says Christina Marrs. "But we're not your grandma."

Like other "old-time" bands in the recent outcropping--from Big Sandy and the Fly-Rites to the Squirrel Nut Zippers--the Spankers are revising (or at least revisiting) history. A vaudevillian energy (heralded by unmistakable kazoo and clarinet accompaniment) and an all-acoustic format set them apart from the pack. This sprawling ensemble needs no PA. There aren't any microphones or amplifiers. And if you've never seen a Dobbs bell, well-played saw, or a washboard, this may be the band for you.

But their songs are all about the contemporary world. Imagine Gershwin poking fun at cigar bars. Or a cabaret show mirroring life with AIDS, cell phones, Waco, terrorist bombings, preachers, LSD and computers. Imagine ragtime artists experimenting with country and blues riffs. The Spankers don't see this as even a stretch.

"We're not a nostalgia band," says Marrs. "We're not going down to play the Veterans of Foreign Wars Hall, playing that music the way it was played 60 years ago. We write a lot of our own music."

Over two CDs, and virtually non-stop touring, the Spankers have carved out a niche of toe-tapping fans. Their most recent CD, Hot Lunch (Cold Spring), includes the surreal "Tripping Over You," a country crooner set to a mushroom-induced instrumental. "If I Were You" offers a seductive laundry list of romantic tips to woo the band's lead singer. The band slinks behind Marrs in a poky tempo with delicious violin, saw and Hawaiian guitar solos. Two songs later, the band launches Joey Bishop's "Blue Prelude" like a Brazilian rumba band fronted by Django Reinhardt. Marrs' full-throated wailing tugs at the heartstrings through every cliché.

To say that each song is unique is an understatement. Each is well arranged, and fully orchestrated. Their previous CD, Spanks for the Memories (Watermelon) marked the transition from side-project band to full-fledged musical entity. Recorded live, its warm spirit (recorded by Bad Livers' Danny Barnes and Mark Rubin) is representative of the bands' skill with an ensemble sound. But their songwriting has bloomed between Spanks and Hot Lunch.

"Hot Lunch really was the first studio CD," says Marrs. "We used all of the buttons, bells and gewgaws. We were really overdue. The number of songs (16 tracks in all) shows two things: there are a lot of people in the band, and they all more or less get a song...(so) we had a lot of material."

Among the most original songs are "Smells Like Thirty Something" (an acidic take on cigar culture) and "Fanny" (a juvenile, pun-filled meditation on the ol' seat of the pants). "We tried to push the less sensitive stuff toward the back," says Marrs. "You get a bunch of boys together, and well, this is the kind of thing they do."

And that's not her only lament. "We toured with only eight of our people when we went to Europe two weeks ago," she says. "Our bass player was too stoned to go to Amsterdam, if you can believe it. We had to find someone from another band and we didn't know he wasn't coming until one hour before the show. We managed to grab someone and show him how to play, and our next phone call was back to Austin to fire our old bassist. I can't tell you how many people have been through this band, at one time or another. It's hard to keep this many people together, to get along, and be in the van all day. It takes a special kind of person to be able to double-up in the rooms."

And it takes a special kind of musician to leave the effects pedals and amplifiers at home, and be willing to stand in front of an audience with nothing but an instrument. It's not every musician's fantasy.

"There are no words for what this band does," says Marrs. "If you don't have any CDs recorded before 1950, you don't know what it sounds like. We play our shows without the microphone, and without a PA. We're right there, with our instruments. For whatever reason, I don't think people know what that sounds or feels like anymore.

"...But until you've heard Prince or a Spinal Tap song on a ukulele, you really haven't heard anything."

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