Washboard. Bells. Whip. Backhoe. Musical saw. Various pieces of metal piled in the back of Leroy’s ’67 Ford F100 parked in the studio driveway.
These are among the instruments you might expect to hear when cueing up an Asylum Street Spankers album — and that doesn’t even speak to the legendary live shows of this jug/ragtime/jazz/blues/country/you-name-it band from the southwestern United States.
Legend has it that a Spankers show is a non-stop, hold-on-to-your-butt romp that grabs the audience by the throat from the first intro and doesn’t stop shaking it until the final ringing banjo chord dissipates into the evening air. And the band reportedly doesn’t even use a PA — it’s au natural. No amps, no mics; not even an instrument that has to be plugged in, for cripe’s sake.
Currently made up of seven members, including founders Wammo, Christina Marrs and Guy Forsyth, the Asylum Street Spankers began humbly. Wammo and Forsyth, who met Marrs when he was busking in front of the place where she worked, came up with an idea for a musical diversion.
“There really wasn’t a vision,” Wammo said while traveling by van en route to a recent show in the Midwest. “I was over at Guy Forsyth’s house. We started talking about starting a jug band, and it kind of developed into this monster.”
That was 11 years ago. The Spankers began humbly enough in Austin, Texas, with the original group starting out with a once a week gig at a place called Café Brazil — a gig that lasted all of three weeks. Shortly thereafter, a Wednesday night gig at a club called the Outhouse became a three-year investment and gave the band the opportunity to jell.
“It was just so much fun,” Wammo said. “We didn’t plan it.”
Wammo grew up with a father who was an opera singer, so he listened to a lot of classical musical.
“In the early ’60s, my sister was a teeny-bopper,” he said, “so I also listened to the Beatles, the Monkees, the Stones, Jimi Hendrix, the Doors and Janis Joplin. My two big musical formative experiences are the Beatles and opera — it’s a natural, straight line from the Beatles through opera to jug music.”
Actually, Wammo was into metal and punk before the Spankers began. Forsyth and Marrs were blues singers. Fellow band member Sick is a punk-rocker-turned-fiddle-player who sports a spiked Mohawk; guitarist and singer Nevada Newman is trained in voice, piano, theory and guitar; drummer Scott Marcus has a background in rock and new wave; bassist PB Shane grew up in punk and found the Spankers by way of rockabilly, and Stanley Smith, who sings and plays clarinet and some guitar, has played everything from folk to jazz over a long career.
Considering all that, it’s no wonder the Asylum Street Spankers are difficult to classify; ?”jug band” just doesn’t seem to quite cover it. Fortunately, only uptight music writers are concerned with such trivialities. For Wammo and his lot, it’s all about the show. The band doesn’t even need to warm up much — they’re so accustomed to playing together that their gigs pretty much are rehearsal.
Asked if a Spankers show resembles an old-fashioned bluegrass jam, Wammo bristled slightly. “We are nothing like a bluegrass jam — what you’re going to see is a really tight band playing that’s going to kick total ass.”
When the Asylum Street Spankers take the stage at the Bomhard Theater Thursday as part of the LEO Presents A Little Off Center series, the audience should be prepared for pretty much anything. Lead vocal duties are shared, which only broadens the band’s diverse sound, and most of the members contribute songs. (It’s worth noting that a surprisingly high percentage of the songs are about smoking weed.) Plus, the number and type of instruments that might be employed is anyone’s guess.
Suffice to say, based on the band’s recorded material and a live 10th anniversary DVD that featured 21 past and current members, what the River City can reasonably expect is, well, a blowout. Rolling Stone described the band’s stage show as “inspired, lunatic brilliance.” The Memphis Flyer said the Spankers are “one of the best live acts you are likely to see anywhere.”
Wammo summed up a Spankers show differently: “Basically, we build the barn and then we burn it down.”