Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer When the Inmates Rule

Austin's Asylum Street Spankers play music the way God intended it.

By Mark Jordan

JULY 5, 1999:  The first time I heard the Asylum Street Spankers -- arguably the quietest band in town that night -- they were playing the Young Avenue Deli -- the loudest bar in town. But even in that cavernous venue, with billiard balls and clinking glasses echoing wildly, the 10-piece acoustic outfit managed to beat the noise, thanks in large measure to the efforts of their Steve Dallas look-alike emcee Mysterious John, who, through his megaphone, begged, screamed, berated, and bullied for silence the whole evening.

"How rude," a friend commented after Mysterious John, decked out in Hawaiian shirt and Ray-Bans, yelled at one bar patron to be quiet. But the way I figure it: It's their show, their rules. If you didn't come prepared to listen and respect the band, why did you pay the cover?

You see, the Spankers are not just an acoustic ensemble, they're hard-core acoustic. The distinction lies not only in their instrumentation -- a grab bag of acoustic guitars, mandolin, ukelele, banjo, dobro, fiddle, washboard, and drums -- but in the fact that they play without amplification of any sort. No amps, not even microphones for the vocalists.

"Music the way God intended it," Mysterious John likes to say, without the presence of "demon electricity."

The loose assemblage of friends and musicians who would eventually form the Asylum Street Spankers first came together in the early '90s over a wild weekend at a B&B in tiny Llano, Texas, just a couple of counties away from the band's current home base of Austin. There on the front porch of the Dabbs Hotel (over many drinks), the musicians found a shared fondness for an older, quieter, more sophisticated form of music. They soon organized and were all set to play their first gig when somebody forgot the PA. They went on without it.

And continue to do so. Though they've put out a number of CDs -- the most recent being Hot Lunch, produced by Bad Livers' Bob Brozman and Daniel Thomas -- which fans can turn up as loud as they like, in concert the Spankers stubbornly stick to their very quiet guns, playing a peculiar amalgam of blues, New Orleans jazz, jug band, old-time country, Tin Pan Alley, and Gypsy swing. The effect is retro, something they often play up with their '20s-era suits. You can easily imagine yourself in a speakeasy listening to Bessie Smith, or, when clarinet player Stanley Smith tears into one of his sweet solos, the Hot Five. But the Spankers are unabashedly modern and very funny, too. Just hear the band's "Jerry the Junker," dedicated to the "greatest of American folk heroes, the junkie" or washboardist/vocalist Wammo sing about his good friend Lee Harvey Oswald.

As much foot-tapping, head-swaying fun as a Spankers show can be, however, it can also be frustrating, like a Frank Capra movie in which the hero remains true to his ideals even as his world comes crumbling down around him. By staying completely acoustic, the band imposes limits on itself. The Spankers make a tremendous opening act for their fellow throwbacks, the Squirrel Nut Zippers, but as things stand now they couldn't be heard in any of the small theatres where the Zippers play. Why can't the Spankers at least throw up a couple of ambient microphones?

In the final analysis, I'm probably wishing for something I don't really want. People don't realize that there was a time when Robert Johnson could rock a whole juke joint with just a guitar and his foot. Sometimes all that metal, wire, and electricity simply get in the way. When the Spankers' Pops Bayless strums his guitar and sings "Mama Don't Allow," it's not a processed electrical signal you're hearing. And when the incredible brothel-mama Christina Marrs lets rip on "Summertime," the sound is going straight from her pipes to your ears. It's a sound from another time, harnessed in the here and now like a faded, ragged old photograph. And it's all the more precious because of it.


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