Asylum Street Spankers bring gospel, irreverence to Aspen
April 1, 2010
ASPEN – Speaking of the 1927 tune “Shave ’em Dry,” Christina Marrs observes that it is “a seriously raunchy song – what you would call a single-entendre song. It doesn’t leave anything to the imagination.” Marrs declines, out of embarrassment, to speak the lyrics of “Shave ’em Dry” – which doesn’t mean she won’t sing the lyrics, as long as she is on stage, comfortably surrounded by the members of the Asylum Street Spankers, the Austin, Texas-based group in which naughty seems natural. In fact, the song crops up occasionally in the band’s current Salvation & Sin tour, which lands Friday at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen.If Marrs and her fellow Spankers do pull out “Shave ’em Dry” on Friday, Aspen audiences will be witness to perhaps the most extreme change in tone ever presented in a single concert. The first set in the Sin & Salvation show is devoted to selections from the Asylum Street Spankers’ latest album – “God’s Favorite Band,” a live recording of gospel tunes, many taken from the old American gospel tradition: “Wade in the Water,” “Down by the Riverside,” “By and By.” And while the Spankers have been known to twist familiar songs to their own twisted purposes – you really should see how they turn Tony Orlando’s “Tie a Yellow Ribbon” into a hilarious, X-rated anti-war rant – they play it mostly straight on “God’s Favorite Record.” Overlook the two original tunes by Wammo, who shares front-man duties with Marrs, and you almost see the Spankers as an act from the gospel circuit.Including Wammo’s tunes – “Volkswagen Thing,” a country-folk song about the Lord’s driving habits that name-checks Elvis and Nazis; and “Right and Wrong,” a finger-snapping blues tune that pictures Buddha as “a huge Nirvana fan” – is probably a wise idea. They put the more puritanical music lovers on notice – before it’s too late; before it’s mid-concert and they’ve broken out “The Scrotum Song” or “If You Love Me (You’ll Sleep on the Wet Spot” or, heaven forbid, “Shave ’em Dry” – and the young ‘uns are tainted forever – that a Spankers show is hardly the equivalent of a church service. A take on Gershwin’s “It Ain’t Necessarily So” – “the things that you’re liable to read in the bible, they ain’t necessarily so” – closes the album, an exclamation point to the notion that, if the Spankers are a gospel group, they are well into the alt-gospel realm.”I don’t think someone could come across a gospel record of ours and think we’re really a gospel band,” Marrs, who turns 40 next week, said from a tour stop in Las Cruces, N.M. “You’d have to be really naive to listen to our gospel record and think, ‘Oh, a nice band of young Christians, a squeaky-clean show.'”••••The Asylum Street Spankers have played against type before. Their 2006 album “Mommy Says NO!” is a kid’s record. No surprise, it is an alt-children’s record, with such songs as “You Only Love Me For My Lunch Box” and “Boogers.” And no surprise, the album was uncompromised in its sound, sticking to the same souped-up acoustic swing and blues that has always been the band’s trademark. In a 2007 interview with The Aspen Times, Wammo noted that the big difference between “Mommy Says No!” and other Spankers’ albums was that the kids’ album “didn’t have the word c—sucker in it.”Of course, before “Mommy Says No!” the Asylum Street Spankers – a seven-piece ensemble of mandolins, fiddles, washboards, banjos and upright bass – never thought of themselves as a band that made music for kids. The album came out of a suggestion from the group’s manager; Wammo, a contrarian with a surly streak, took it as a challenge.The idea of the Spankers making gospel music, though, is not so outlandish. The band originated on the streets of Austin in 1994, when Wammo, his ears ringing nonstop from a heavy dose of punk and metal, decided to go acoustic, and dig into the music of pre-amplified America: swing, Dixieland, Delta blues, ragtime. And gospel. So when, early on, the band was invited to play a weekly gig at Austin’s La Zona Rosa, they didn’t flinch at the idea that the gig a gospel brunch.”The Spankers play American roots music for the most part,” Marrs, who grew up in Houston and has lived in Austin for 20 years, said. “And gospel is the American roots music.”Old gospel numbers have remained a part of the group’s repertoire, alongside covers of the B-52s, the Beastie Boys, Bob Dylan, Black Flag and Wammo’s off-color originals. But the group never got around to recording any of the gospel songs. Around 2006, the band teamed up with some former members to play three gospel shows, and they recorded the concerts.The affection for gospel should not be taken as an indication that the Spankers are a bunch of church-going musicians who make sure to wind down early on Saturday night to be ready for Sunday morning. Marrs says part of the reason “God’s Favorite Record” includes the two off-beat Wammo songs is so there would be no doubt that Wammo isn’t a practicing Christian. “I think Wammo needs to show that he’s not really religious,” she said. “I think he has a problem singing gospel songs. He thinks of it as hypocritical. But I think it’s as hypocritical as a bunch of white people singing old, Southern black music.”As for her own religious beliefs, Marrs says she has none. But she has no problem singing “Jesus Walking on the Water” or “Each Day.” They’re great songs that she wants to try her voice at.”For me, a huge part of it is the harmonies,” she said. “Gospel has the most fantastic harmonies ever. Ever, ever. And a groove, a rhythm. And sometimes the lyrics can be funny – ‘hell and brimstone, smiting and smoting,’ in ‘Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’ [a 1930s song written by Robert MacGimsey, popularized by Louis Armstrong, and covered on “God’s Favorite Record”]. “Me, I have no problem reinterpreting a beautiful song I really admire. I love Argentinean music – but my Spanish is maybe good enough to order a taco. But to grasp the longing in the singer’s voice, you don’t have to understand the words, to get that it’s tragic, that this person’s dying of a heart attack. The lyrics are secondary to the experience.”For their next album, the Asylum Street Spankers are once again considering going against their usual nature. They have in mind a purely blues record that would discard the jazz, country and other elements that have made their past albums stylistically eclectic. Or at least, that was the plan.”For once, we were going to make a record that was stylistically cohesive. Because even if it’s a children’s record or a gospel record, the style is all over the place,” Marrs said. “But of course the new songs that are coming out of the band aren’t blues songs. You never have control over what comes out of you.”firstname.lastname@example.org
The Asylum Street Spankers bring their Salvation & Sin Tour to Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House on Friday at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 and $30 for reserved seating.