Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Album of the Day 3/4/11

Every day, our 1000 best albums of all time countdown continues all the way to #1. Friday’s album is #697:

The Asylum Street Spankers – What? And Give Up Show Business?

Hope it’s ok with you if we stick with the oldtime swing for a couple days in a row (we’ll be back with the rock on Saturday). For the better part of 15 years, the Asylum Street Spankers were arguably the funniest band on the planet, a raucous acoustic Americana counterpart to the Dead Kennedys. Fearlessly political, they took on the Bush regime with a ferocious sarcasm matched by few other bands (their best being their last big hit, the Iraq War satire Stick Magnetic Ribbons on Your SUV). This 2008 double cd is sort of a greatest-hits collection, recorded in front of a packed house at New York’s Barrow Street Theatre. Frontwoman Christina Marrs and percussionist/singer Wammo banter back and forth over sizzling violin, guitar and mandolin, through a mix of originals and classic blues and gospel tunes. The best of these is My Baby in the CIA, a hilarious, spot-on critique of corporate-sponsored American anti-democracy moves over the years. There’s also the equally spot-on Winning the War on Drugs, an equally funny update on Black Flag’s TV Party, the Medley of Burnt-Out Songs, the amazing, intricately arranged My Favorite Records, and Marrs’ Hawaiian-flavored homage to marijuana, Pakalolo Baby. They also intersperse several skits between songs, the funniest being the Gig from Hell, which every musician will relate to. Mystifyingly hard to find as a torrent; the Spankers (who’ve recently disbanded, reputedly for the last time) still have it at their site.

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March 4, 2011 Posted by | blues music, country music, lists, Music, music, concert, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sunday at Lincoln Center Out of Doors: Bad Segues, Amazing Show

By any standard, this year’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival is one of the best ever: of all of New York’s summer festivals, this is one you really should investigate if you’re in town – especially because it’s free. Sunday’s lineup outdoors on the plaza under the trees was an improbable but smartly assembled “roots of American music” bill.

“Are you awake?” Etran Finatawa’s electric guitarist asked the crowd, in French: from the response, the answer was barely. With their swaying triplet rhythms and expansively hypnotic, gently crescendoing one-chord jams, the Niger-based duskcore band were a perfect choice to get the afternoon started. They’re as captivating as Tinariwen, starting methodically and getting more diverse and interesting as the set went on. One of the earlier numbers started with a meandering solo guitar intro, like a Middle Eastern taqsim, and grew surprisingly into a boisterously shuffling anthem. One of the band’s percussionists – dressed in what looked like warrior regalia – opened a percussive, stop-and-start number solo on screechy ritti fiddle. Desert blues bands change modes more than they change actual chords, but Etran Finatawa’s most memorable song, an especially epic one, worked a dramatic shift from minor to major and then back again for all it was worth. And then like many of their other songs, they shut it down cold.

Los Straitjackets, arguably the world’s most popular surf band after the Ventures and Dick Dale, made about the most incongruous segue imaginable. But counting them as a roots band isn’t an overstatement: there isn’t a band alive in the small yet thriving surf rock subculture that hasn’t felt their influence, especially because they write original songs, in a whole slew of styles. Happily keeping the choreography and the cheesy stage antics to a minimum, they aired out their repertoire instead with a mix of cheery Buck Owens-flavored country stomps, Gene Vincent twang, three-chord Chuck Berry-style shuffles, and a couple of attempts at a happier spaghetti western style (along with one that was not happy at all – it was the highlight of the show). Drummer Jason Smay’s playful Gene Krupa-isms got the crowd roaring on an extended surf version of Sing Sing Sing; guitarist Danny Amis (who played bass on one song) led the band in a rousing version of a Jimi Hendrix song (ok, it wasn’t a Hendrix song, but that was Jimi on lead guitar on Joey Dee and the Starliters’ Peppermint Twist). Guitarist Eddie Angel showed off expert and boisterous command of every twangy guitar style ever invented, from Dick Dale tremolo-picking to sinuous, fluid Bill Kirchen country licks. The crowd screamed for an encore but didn’t get one.

The Asylum Street Spankers were their usual adrenalized selves, but a sadness lingered: the band is breaking up. Other than the show they played right afterward at Joe’s Pub (one hopes they got there in time), this was their last one in New York. It’s hard to imagine another band who were as funny as they were virtuosic. Banjo player Christina Marrs, multi-instrumentalist Charlie King, resonator guitarist Nevada Newman and the rest of the crew (Wammo was AWOL) all showed off their prodigious chops in turn, tersely and intensely. Their big college radio hit, Scrotum, was “a mixed-blessing song,” as Marrs put it, but she traded off vocals with Newman and King with a freshness and salaciousness that made it hard to believe they’ve sung it a thousand times before. The high points of the show were the political ones: the hillbilly sway of Lee Harvey Was A Friend of Mine, which cites Jack Ruby as “the biggest sleaze in town,” and My Baby in the CIA, a hilariously understated chronology of CIA-sponsored anti-democracy coups over the decades – and a lot of other things, some relevant, some less so but still fun, like King’s throat-singing. Marrs cranked up the volume with her amazing pipes on fierily sultry covers of the Violent Femmes’ Jesus Walking on the Water and Muddy Waters’ Got My Mojo Working; they closed with a swinging version of Don’t Let the Music Die, but it was about to and that was too bad. At least it’ll be fun to find out where all the individual Spankers end up once this year’s ongoing farewell tour has run its course.

August 3, 2010 Posted by | blues music, concert, country music, folk music, gospel music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, rock music, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Lucid Culture Interview: Wammo of the Asylum Street Spankers

The Asylum Street Spankers – the world’s funniest, most irreverent (and many would say, best) oldtime Americana hellraisers are playing the Bell House at 8 PM on January 9 – tickets are going fast, get ‘em while they last. Wammo, the Spankers’ singer, washboard player and one of the group’s several resident wits took some time out of his busy holiday season to answer a few questions about the show and the band’s new album:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: Your new cd God’s Favorite Band is just out. How much if any rightwing backlash has there been? Did Oral Roberts issue a fatwa against you before he croaked?

Wammo: Did Oral Roberts finally die? Remember back in ’87 when he announced that God would kill him if he didn’t raise a million dollars? That guy was a genius.

LCC: OK, is there a tally of pissed-off atheists? Or do they realize that like all the other styles of roots music that the Spankers play, it’s just classic Americana, really not so much of a divergence from your other stuff?

Wammo: I think you answered that one yourself, so I’ll ask my own question to all of the atheists out there. If you were standing on an icy sidewalk and down by your feet was a steaming cup of hot chocolate and as you were reaching down to grab the delicious beverage, your pants split, making you jerk, rip your shirt open and slip on the ice, only to plummet and land chest first into the boiling confection, horribly scalding your areola but enticing a little puppy to scamper up and begin licking the hot chocolate off of your heaving nipple, how could God not be the force that didn’t make this scenario not happen?

LCC: Is it rude of me to ask about your own spiritual beliefs, upbringing and/or lack thereof?

Wammo: No, I don’t think it’s rude at all.

LCC: One of your originals on the album asserts that God drives a Volkswagen Thing. I was pleasantly surprised to see that you’d do a song about a VW Thing, let alone that you’d make it divine – and that you’d make the connection to the Nazi WWII vehicle which it pretty much was a carbon copy of, with a little bigger engine. Why a VW Thing, instead of, say, a Beetle, which floats and therefore could be construed as walking on water?

Wammo: Back in the ’70s, Volkswagen created these ridiculous commercials that depicted VW Things painted all kinds of crazy ways: flags, starscapes, rainbows, etc.. Even as a little kid, I knew that they must have found a cheap way to get the old Nazi jeep back into production. I’d be watching The Dirty Dozen and suddenly a commercial would come on with hippies riding around in the same ugly-ass jeep that Lee Marvin blew up only seconds before. I figured God would want a little anonymity when visiting earth, so God would pick the ugliest car for cruising around. Hence, God drives a Volkswagen Thing. The joke, explained.

LCC: What’s the inspiration for the other original of yours, Right and Wrong? Is that a Bush War era song or does it go back further than that?

Wammo: I think the concept of right and wrong goes back further than the Bush administration but it’s so hard to remember…  I wanted to write a song that showed the absurdity of the “my God is right” mentality. I intended for it to go in that direction but it ended up becoming confessional. It’s like being in such a hurry to get your shoes on, you don’t realize that you’ve tied your laces together.

LCC: What’s the genesis of this album? Was this a deliberate attempt to make another thematic live album a la What? And Give Up Show Business?, or did you just have the tracks kicking around and figured, holy smokes, we can get another live album out of this?

Wammo: The whole thing was planned out — booking, rehearsing and playing the gospel shows, hiring someone to record the shows, buying new gear, having Christina [Marrs, the Spankers’ frontwoman and multi-instrumentalist] learn how to use the gear and then mix the record. She did a great job, don’t you think?

LCC: Um, if it’s ok with you it’s ok with me. Seriously, though, I like the album a lot. So what can we expect from you at the Bell House on January 9? Are you doing a straight-up gospel show or are you going to air out a few fan favorites? At least the Medley of Burnt Out Songs?

Wammo: This is the Salvation and Sin tour, the first half is stuff from the new gospel record and the second half is all of the dirty, nasty, secular stuff. We give you redemption and follow it with madness. If you think about it, that’s the way it usually works in real life. Show starts at 8 PM.

LCC: After this album and this tour, what’s next for the Spankers? Or has the big G not told you yet?

Wammo: We’ll be heading to Europe and Japan this year but believe it or not, we’re cutting back on touring. There’s a new album already in preproduction, so we’ll be recording sometime this year. I’ll be doing some solo gigs and Fringe Festival stuff. I did a one-man show at PS 122 in Manhattan and I’ll be touring that soon. Last time I called the big G, I couldn’t get past the automated menu, “If you’re in hell, press one. If you’re on Earth, press two. If you’re having an existential crisis, press null…”

December 28, 2009 Posted by | interview, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

CD Review: The Asylum Street Spankers – God’s Favorite Band

Things like this happen with bands who’ve been around awhile and have the good sense to record themselves in fortuitous circumstances. Back in 2006, the Asylum Street Spankers – the world’s smartest, most deliriously fun oldtimey Americana band – recorded some live performances at the Saxon Pub in their hometown of Austin. Among the songs were several traditional gospel tunes along with a handful of originals that wouldn’t be drastically out of place, musically at least, in a straight-up gospel set. It isn’t implausible to imagine the band hanging around the dressing room one night after a show after someone put these songs on a boombox, while a  joint made its way around the room. Suddenly percussionist/singer Wammo has an epiphany and turns in amazement to multi-instrumentalist/siren Christina Marrs: “Holy shit, we have a gospel album here!”

As improbable as it might seem at first thought for the Spankers to be doing a gospel album, it actually makes perfect sense when you consider how deep their knowledge of American roots music is. As sacriligeous as the band is, Marrs has an amazing set of pipes and pulls out all the stops here. Likewise, the band’s vocal harmonies are tight and inventive when they’re not being tight and absolutely period-perfect, as with their minstrel-esque version of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego.

An ancient-sounding  instrumental version of the Blind Willie Johnson blues Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground opens the cd and sets a rustic tone. The standards Each Day, Down by the Riverside, By and By and Wade in the Water each get a fervent, ecstatic treatment which rather than being camp reaffirms the band’s seemingly innate feel for these songs as universal expression of the human spirit that transcend any doctrinaire limitations. Then they do the same thing with a contemporary Christian song (yes, that’s what it is), the Violent Femmes’ Gordan Gano’s Jesus Walking on the Water.

But as expected it’s the originals that bring down the house. Wammo’s somewhat snide Right and Wrong has an ironclad Iraq War-era logic to go along with the stoner humor: “I ain’t got no problem with Buddha, ’cause he’s a huge Nirvana fan.” And his other song here, Volkswagen Thing reclaims a Nazi-era relic as vehicle for the divine. In case you don’t remember it, the Thing during its brief revival in the 70s was  one of the most unsafe cars ever built, a car so rear-heavy that it could pop a wheelie despite being ridiculously underpowered. Satan, on the other hand, drives his Mercedes like the pig he is – and he’s got a Hummer, too. The band closes out this raucous collection with a defiant version of Gershwin’s It Ain’t Necessarily So, a vivid reminder of where they’re really coming from for anyone who might not have been paying attention. Steampunks everywhere, not to mention fans of both traditional and secular gospel alike (the Lost Crusaders and Rev. Vince Anderson especially come to mind) will love this album. The Spankers made it to NYC a couple of times this year and they will doubtlessly be back (they recorded their sensational What? And Give Up Show Business? live cd here), watch this space for details.

November 8, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment