Asylum Street Spankers redefine acoustic music
by Seth Rogovoy

(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass., June 7, 2002) – The Austin, Texas-based Asylum Street Spankers were not only unplugged at Club Helsinki on Thursday night – they were unabashed, unforgettable and incredibly un-self-conscious, as they entertained the crowd with latter-day vaudeville flair in a variety show that spanned 1920s jazz to yesterday’s gangsta rap and everything in between.

The septet of musicians and singers really played unplugged – not in the modified acoustic manner that has become standard practice, in which acoustic instruments are amplified and singers use microphones. On Thursday, the sound engineer had the night off, as the band played entirely without amplification, relying solely on musical and vocal dynamics to get their music and message across.

That they did so with gleeful aplomb just added to the carnival-like atmosphere. Top-hatted fiddler/vocalist Korey Simeone grabbed the audience’s attention at first with a barker-like introduction. “We play without the use of demon electricity,” he expounded, and off they went, launching into the Gypsy jazz of “Digga Doo,” sung by Christina Marrs, the only woman on stage and one of four lead vocalists in the group.

The mononymic Wammo then stood up and sang a dizzyingly hilarious, country novelty song about drugs called “Beer,” which modulated and sped up three times and by the end had the whole crowd singing along on the one-word chorus: “Beer, beer, beer, beer, beer, beer, beer, beer.”

Vocalist/clarinetist Stanley Smith took a turn on lead vocals for “I’m Just Sitting Here Watching Another Blade of Grass Grow,” a gentle country-rocker that resembled Bob Dylan’s “Watching the River Flow” in theme as much as in its easygoing lilt. Simeone took a turn on a love song delivered in a theatrical, Al Jolson-like style. Wammo sang several other novelties, including one that invoked Moses, Spiderman, Santa Claus and the Elephant Man, and another called “Hick Hop” that fused country and western murder ballads with contemporary hip-hop.

Instruments, including guitars, banjos, fiddles, ukuleles, dobros, mandolins, washboards, percussion and bass frequently were swapped among the seven musicians. The group’s musical inventiveness extended to an instrumental piece Marrs composed to accompany Charlie Chaplin’s silent classic, “The Gold Rush,” featuring a genuine “musical saw” – Marrs bowed a cross-cut saw and bent it to derive changes of pitch. On Wammo’s “Hick Hop,” Simeone derived a turntable-scratch effect out of his dobro.

Not everything was a joke, however, and this was the secret of the group’s success. Smith played a straightforward rendition of Count Basie’s “Topsy” on clarinet, and Marrs delivered a bluesy, entertaining rendition of “Shine On Harvest Moon.” If the Asylum Street Spankers weren’t such terrific, accomplished musicians, the joke would have grown stale or tired or even annoying very quickly. Instead, they were simply brilliant.

[This review originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on June 10, 2002. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2002. All rights reserved.]

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