Friday, February 16, 2007

Spankin' Good

Posted By on Fri, Feb 16, 2007 at 5:30 PM

Asylum St. Spankers. Thursday, February 15, at Knuckleheads.

Review by Chris Packham

I attended an evening of acoustic, mostly unamplified old-timey-esque music by the Aylum Street Spankers at Knuckleheads Saloon last night, down in Kansas City's spectacular Railyard District. If Knuckleheads is any indication, Kay Barnes' railyard revitalization program is finally yielding a more exciting nightlife, like Denver's much-vaunted railyard district.

The Asylum Street Spankers sought asylum in KC last night.

We need to follow the Denver model, and encourage the KC arts community to put down roots in the railyards. First, the sculptors and the alternative theater groups and amateur fire-eating crews move in. Then the condo developers come. And pretty soon, you've got lawyers and architects living in rehabbed switchyard outbuildings.

Sorry about the digression. I have a secret fascination with city planning and zoning ordinances which I will suppress for the duration of this music review. The Asylum Street Spankers are a talented music combo from Austin, a large Busking District in Texas. They've been playing together in various configurations since 1994, but the band's mainstays are Christina Marrs and the mononymous Wammo.

Those two do most of the heavy-lifting, vocals-wise. (There's a third founding Spanker named Guy Forsyth who's also an onstage alpha-dog, but he's a part-timer, now, and not part of the current tour.) Marrs is a tiny woman with a big, giant voice. Hey! 'See' and 'hear' don't match! Just like Rick Astley! And totally unlike Von Smith. When I saw Von Smith, and then heard his voice, I thought, Yeah, pretty much what I expected. Wammo has good singing chops, but the main thing he brings to the table is Big Texas Guy Personality.

Marrs belts out jazz tunes and country ballads with equal facility, and plays the banjo, guitar, and ukelele. I don't know if it was the weather, or the road-numbness of touring, but she didn't seem to be in the world's most awesome mood last night.

Now, logically, I know that just because a performer doesn't sit up straight with a toothy, baby-eating Miss America smile for a whole set, it doesn't mean that she doesn't like me. But as the show progressed, I couldn't help feeling really insecure on behalf of the crowd. "Is she upset with us? Should we be clapping louder?"

But that doesn't mean she didn't perform. I don't know if it's her Puritan work ethic, or Kevin Costner's the Love of the Game, but she still put on a fun show. When I saw her at the merch table later, I remember mumbling something about "singing real purty," then having a panic attack, fumbling for my albuterol inhaler, and squirting it in the wrong direction. By the time I got my bronchioles dilated, she was pointedly talking to somebody else.

The Spankers draw from a catalog of actual old-timey songs, and pseudo old-timey songs they've composed themselves. They're big on crowd-pleasing comic numbers, like Wammo's "Hick-Hop," a hybrid of country death songs and gangsta rap that features pleasing bursts of "Sweet Home Alabama."

There's a new Spanker on the tour named Charlie, who played guitar and dobro. I didn't catch his last name, unfortunately, but he looks kind of like the British neighbor from The Jeffersons — y'know, the same actor who played the hotel manager in Spinal Tap who says, "I am as god made me." Only, younger, and with impressive mutton-choppage. [Uh, link anyone? -- Ed.]

He was really funny, but his most remarkable talent was this crazy undertone Kargyraa-style throat singing he did during two songs. Singers accomplish this effect by vibrating the vestibular folds, which are thick, delicious folds of mucus membrane immediately below the epiglottis.This is a musical tradition of some people somewhere in the world. Ask a god damn ethnomusicologist. At any rate, I'd never heard throat singing performed live, and it was sort of cool and freaky.

And the Spankers do put on a fun, theatrical show. This was the second time I'd seen them, and I'll probably go again when they return to Knuckleheads in June. By then, the weather will be nice and the First Friday Hobowalks will be in full swing down in the Railyard Arts District.

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