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Sideshow Fez by Asylum Street Spankers

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Sideshow Fez is a concert video recorded August 15, 2003 in Portland, Oregon by the Asylum Street Spankers, an Austin, Texas based band that somehow has previously escaped my notice.

Appears that Junior Samples somehow escaped from Kornfield County, got some education, joined an acoustic jazz band and turned it all into a vaudeville sideshow.

First off, this is one kick ass band. They have a lot of flavor- all acoustic, eschewing “the demon electricity.” You can pick out little strains of all kinds of mostly pre-WWII musical styles. There are several different flavors of jazz involved, some country. Not knowing anything about the band going in, my first guess would have been that they were from New Orleans.

Some of the New Orleans flavor comes from the obviously revered old man in the group, Stanley Smith, and his clarinet. Besides being a hipster, and a singer, he can do some mean scatting on “Mah Na Mah Na” as does Wammo- the aforementioned Junior Samples character.

Dave Marsh once famously criticized the Grateful Dead for making bluegrass and the blues sound the same. The Asylum Street Spankers would precisely not be accused of any such. They maintain distinctive marks of numerous types of music. You can pick out the vaudevillian ukelele and banjo from the torch song from the scatting from the Skynyrd quotes.

They haven’t rounded the edges off the different musical traditions, but skillfully meshed them together to make a fairly distinctive sound of their own.

At least one music site has the band listed under “comedy/novelty.” That doesn’t do the band any kind of justice. Weird Al Yankovic is a comedy/novelty act. Frank Zappa, on the other hand, was a serious musician with frequently humorous intent. The Spankers go more in that group.

Indeed, they’re good enough musicians that they make stuff work that shouldn’t work. Like the makers of Tropicana Twister, the Asylum Street Spankers are creating flavors nature never intended. “Hick Hop” for example fuses, as Wammo puts it, country murder ballads and gangster rap- and makes it work musically. They’re playing instruments, and creating an honest groove. And Korey scratches a mean dobro. Besides the posing and stage moves that really add to the presentation, there’s at least minimally enough of an actual song to significantly support the schtick.

Christina Marrs is one singing bitch. She has a big enough voice to absolutely sing the bejesus out of the B-52s classic “Dance This Mess Around.” Kate Pierson couldn’t have done it stronger or better. This would doubtless sound good on a CD, but watching big ol’ Wammo in his cowboy hat demonstrating all 16 dances really adds to the experience.

Yet Miss Christina also sings most of the straighter songs, jazz torch ballads and such. Her song “Breathin'” probably rates as the best original group composition, as far as actual songwriting goes. I’d be real interested to hear what KD Lang could do with this song.

She can do a lot of other groovy things. She also has a strong Betty Boop voice she uses to advance the most vaudevillian aspects of the band, particularly on her and Wammo’s original “Scrotum Song.”

What the hell is wrong with this Wammo dude, anyway? With his chemical interests, cowboy hat, washboard playing and general flying of the freak flag, he’s obviously a very bad influence on society and the rest of the band.

Well, he might not be that bad an influence on Korey Simeone, the mama’s boy in the top hat playing MC and badass dobro and other stringed things. Mr Simeone obviously has problems, as you might should be figuring out by the time he’s running around on all fours and barking like a dog. Plus, I think he might have peed on Wammo’s leg. Good. He deserves it. In any case, this Korey guy is messed up enough that even Wammo couldn’t really make it much worse.

Also, if you get into this video you can feel good about being part of this audience. Looks like perhaps as many as a thousand people really paying attention, and getting what’s going on.

In particular groovy ol’ Stanley goes to playing Les Paul’s “Walkin’ & Whistlin’ Blues.” He started out by telling the audience that he was going to want them to whistle the blues, then pointed his clarinet out a couple minutes later. It wasn’t perfect, but the crowd whistled back pretty much the whole song in a recognizable form. Remember, this was recorded in Oregon, so it’s not like this is their regular Austin crowd that might get to see them regularly. It feels good to be part of a SMART crowd, even vicariously by video.

If you’ve got any interest in acoustic or roots music, you really should hear this band. Better yet, you should SEE this band to really get what the act is about.

Also, they’re not from this video specifically, but CLICK HERE to get an mp3 stream of songs from their website, including a couple of particularly interesting Prince covers featuring Miss Christina.

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  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    reminds me a little of Hayseed Dixie.

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    There may be a bit of spiritual connection between the humorous acoustic music of ASS and Hayseed Dixie, but they don’t actually sound much alike. Hayseed Dixie is pretty much specifically a bluegrass act.

    ASS could certainly do bluegrass, but I didn’t see much that would qualify as such on this video.

    Now, I like Hayseed Dixie, but they seem to be a somewhat limited joke. ASS are considerably more musically ambitious.

  • http://www.foliage.com/~marks Mark Saleski

    yea, i’d agree with that. these guys seem to lean more to country swing rather than straight bluegrass.

    and i’ve got to be in the mood for the jokey aspect of it (like when i pull out my copy of Luther Wright & the Wrongs doing the bluegrassy version of Floyd’s The Wall)

  • Eric Olsen

    Thanks Al! and don’t forget the Chickasaw Mud Puppies or the Gourds.

  • http://www.morethings.com/log Al Barger

    Mark- After I suggested that ASS doesn’t do much with bluegrass, I started listening to this excellent bluegrass cover of “1999.”