Sick of jam bands? Sick of punkrock? Think that’s all I-Town has to offer? Whoever said there’s no musical variety in Ithaca has obviously never been to Castaways. More specifically, they weren’t at Castaways this past Tuesday night to witness one of the most (to put it mildly) interesting bands to come through this sunlight forsaken section of upstate New York in the last few years. The Asylum Street Spankers rocked, bluesed, countried, parodied, and performed their highly lauded brand of musical madness to a welcoming crowd of over 200, and earned themselves a standing ovation in the process.
Oddly enough, the possibility of a standing ovation in Castaways, of all places, was real on Tuesday. If you’d never even imagined Castways spiffed up (well, to an extent) for an occasion, this was the time to see it. The tiny bar/concert venue set up tables near the stage, each with a candle, but also left plenty of standing room. The overall effect was of an underground jazz-club, and it lent the performance a degree of intimacy that may not have been present had everyone been standing. It also, and probably most importantly, allowed the sound to travel farther through the room. The Spankers did not use amplifiers of any kind.
It’s hard to describe just what the Spankers delivered on stage, and using one descriptor most certainly is not enough. Was it Dixieland with a blues twist, a country twang, vaudeville vocals, and lyrics about booze and reefer? Slap bass grooves roaming expertly under banjo, slide guitar, and fiddle? A man wearing a top hat, rapping in German over an acoustic bass? Whatever you call it, they did it well.
The enthusiasm in the room combined with the chemistry between the band and the audience put most Ithaca head-bobbing shows to shame. The band played two one-hour sets, with a healthy beer break in the middle. The performance was also done completely acoustic, without a mike, amp, or megaphone anywhere in sight. For anyone else, the choice to bag the amplification may have proven disastrous, but the Spankers had the audience so thoroughly enthralled, even the people at the bar in the back quieted down when the music started.
The Asylum Street Spankers formed in 1994 in the musical melting pot that is Austin Texas. Through the last eight years the group has released five, critically well-received, full-length albums and has included over 30 different members. The size of the band generally varies between eleven and seven (as there are for this tour). They’ve made touring a staple of their musical lifestyle, and it seems to have served them well judging from the number of audience members this past Tuesday who knew many of the lyrics.
For their performance the Spankers did everything from Dixieland to blues, pairing lighthearted spoken word inspired lyrics by Wammo (one of the original members of the band) with borrowed Lynyrd Skynyrd riffs, and vaudeville-like vocals by Christina Marrs (another original member) with topics like marijuana and sexual metaphors. Perhaps the best thing about the Spankers’ show, the thing that kept it entertaining, was the bands apparent sense of humor. The performance, from the actual music to facial expressions was obviously practiced, but not so much that it seemed corny or stale.
Before starting “The Scrotum Song,” Marrs warned the audience, “This song gets stuck in your head. You just have to wait it out. Kind of like a virus,” and added as an afterthought, but one with practiced comedic timing, “