Asylum Street Spankers

Sideshow Fez

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Unfortunately not all of the Asylum Street Spankers releases are available on DVD, because that medium is the best way to appreciate the Austin band's radically eclectic style. Without any electricity, even microphones, to enhance or amplify the sound, this is roots music played in the most honest, primitive, and, well, rootsy way. Touring is easier because nobody needs to lug huge amplifiers around. It also confines the eight-piece band to smaller venues where the unplugged instruments and vocals can be heard farthest from the stage. This particular show was recorded on a single, and typically diverse, gig from Portland, OR's Fez Ballroom (hence the title) on August 15, 2003. Led by the irrepressible, eternally beer-toting Wammo and offset by the far more sedate vocalist/guitarist/ukulele player Christiana Marrs, the group uses its old-timey, almost vaudeville approach, to present blues, folk, torch songs, country, ragtime, and even hip-hop (although more as a joke) with energy and sly, occasionally sexual, humor. Live is where the Spankers' schtick makes more sense, since on album, although successful, the disparate nature of the material doesn't always gel. The show replaces the gimmicky aspects with the exuberance and visual wit that the band naturally projects. The audience is as much a part of the proceedings as the band, since if they are not quiet the players can't be heard. That puts pressure on the Spankers to deliver a performance that consistently captivates the crowd, and from the looks of it, that comes easily. Members wander on and off stage depending upon the song, but pony-tailed, cowboy hat-wearing leader Wammo acts as ringmaster, directing traffic and keeping the spectators entertained, even when he's not singing. The show is heavy on wink-wink-nudge-nudge originals such as "The Scrotum Song" and "If You Love Me (You'll Sleep on the Wet Spot)" with detours into fun crowd-pleasing covers of the Muppet hit "Mah Na Mah Na" and "The Hokey Pokey" as well as more serious traditional fare like "St. James Infirmary" and the jazz standard "Some of These Days." "Hick Hop" also playfully shows how easy it is for anyone to rap using only acoustic instruments instead of loops and turntables. The camera work is very good, putting the viewer both on-stage and in the audience. A creative animated short provides intermission and the stereo sound is more than adequate, especially considering the rather grassroots presentation where mixing is not much of an option. A half-hour documentary on the Spankers' tour of Japan is an interesting addition and is worth watching at least once as the disc's sole extra. But after the exhilarating live concert, there's little need for anything more. The perfect souvenir for anyone who has seen the group's concert, the DVD also serves as a great way to expose newcomers to the Asylum Street Spankers' unique nonconservative but traditionalist-based style.