A Spankin' Treat

I've made a pack of moo (miniature business cards) that feature my recent shots of local musicians. When I hand them out to people who know some of the bands involved, they of course want the ones of people they know and have seen, so it’s a toss up as to which are the favorites. But when I present them to somebody not at all involved with the scene, one of themost popular ones is this,, and a close friend cited "I know nothing about any of these musicians, but these guys are having such a wonderful time, you can see it in their faces, the joy is jumping off the picture." I don't know who's complemented more with a statement like that, me the photographer, or the musicians, The Mighty Lumberhorn.

Boy Howdy
Originally uploaded by V'ron.
Saturday afternoon was yet another futile attempt to see them at the Urban Ecology Center. Saturday was Winterfest, and in addition to the music, the UEC had crafts, animal feeding, storytelling in a tipi, and a ceremony throwing the switch on the facility's new solar panels, which will now supply 90% of the building's energy needs. (I was hoping they'd go completely off the grid, but there's always room for improvement.) Still, its proving it can be done, that we can reduce our environmental impact, and I'm sure those panels will pay for themselves in about three weeks. But with all this going on, (and of course, this event was child-friendly so Stella and Sam were with me in full force), I had about enough time to catch maybe two or three songs. "He's 200% Boy," a volunteer smiled at me in parental camraderie while I chased Sammy all over the place. Yes, he is. He got to meet a real live snake, build a baking soda and cornstarch snowman, and look at the city from the top of the observation tower, as well as escape my watchful eye for an excruciating three minutes during which I about had a coronary frantically looking for him. Stella, my little inquisitor, was able to sit in one spot for more than two minutes, and therefore enjoyed deeper versions of Sammy's activities. But did I get to see the band I came to see? Noooooooooo!!!!!! No matter how wonderful a time it was.

Therefore, I really had to accept that I was going to be out late on Sunday (before getting up at 5 the next morning for work), to see the Lumberhorn open up for a band I knew nothing of, The Asylum Street Spankers, and as the Lumberhorn was kind enough to put me on the pest list for that, the word "treat" really resonates here. What a treat that turned out to be, totally worth being a zombie the next day at work.

OK, did some research before I turned up at Vnuk's: The word "Spankers" might make one think they're some kind of dirty blues band (and partially, they are). It turns out that "spanker" is an old country term for a musician who "spanks" their instrument, but the designation is usually reserved for a player who is unusually musically proficient. And that's accurate for this band: Virtuosos, they are. "Asylum street" is a local term for the street many of them met each other busking on in Austin, Texas -- there is indeed an asylum at the end of the block. And it's also accurate: these folks are just a little bit crazy, or they come off as such. Untrimmed facial hair (well, untrimmed hair period), beer bellies, jeans, T-shirts, a touch of "Deliverance" in their overall appearance. But they're not crazy. You listen to their words, you hear their precision playing: they're an island of delightful common sense sanity in a messed up world.

Musically, they pull off this NPR House Band feel -- they could very well be the Prairie Home Companion band (well, that's PHC as directed by Altman), except they don't need Garrison Keillor. They have their own stories to tell, and most of them get told in song. They're all over the map and all over the 20th century: from western swing to bluegrass to delta blues. Christina Marrs' voice recalls everybody from Peggy Lee to (as one reviewer put it) Betty Boop, or even Marilyn Monroe's sexy little girl squeal. Except, picture Marilyn singing the blues. Frontman Wammo (apparently that is his real name) sweet tenor works on everything from his smartaleck country rap to his cynical ballads, and you can hear his background as a slam poet come through strong. They were brilliantly funny and touching. My face hurt from smiling so much.

Right now, the "hit" on the internet is their take on "Tie A Yellow Ribbon", changing the refrain to "Put a Magnetic Ribbon on that SUV," and while it's magnificent parody, I'm hoping that people will see it on YouTube, but then investigate them further. Because although "Magnetic Ribbon" is a hoot, its not representative of who they are, really. They're not a joke band. They're drop-dead, seriously brilliant musicians who just happen to be funny, and transcend any and all genres. You don't even have to hear them sing about their favorite records (this was the topic of their closing song), to know that in addition to all the Americana music they do so well, they love their rock and rap and punk and country (they're from Austin, after all), and they know their pop culture. Like Eat the Mystery two nights before, they are not stuck in any one era, they know exactly who they are and what year this is. I owe the Lumberhorn big time for turning me on to them.

Back to the Lumberhorn, who opened for them. All the promos I got from them (and that was the ONLY way I knew this performance was happening, BTW, get with the promo program, Vnuk's!) sincerely lauded the Spankers as the greatest band ever, and while I knew nothing of them before this, it was clear that the Lumberhorn held them in the highest esteem and were excited (perhaps a touch nervous) at getting to open for their heroes. That's always a double-edged sword: being a band that gets to open for clear legends, but having to impress (or at least not piss off) the audience who clearly came to see the headliner. Not to worry, guys: you held your own. Boy Howdy has a great, clear snicker to his vocals, and twists a lyrical phrase to put the right emphasis on the words that end up sticking in the audience's craw, whether's he's wondering out loud about What Would Jesus Drive or bitching about that armpit of America he grew up in, Northwest Indiana. Heather's fiddlin' is effortlessly right up there with the headliners' musical precision and that leaves her plenty of room to fill in anything from vocals to jokes. BJ's narrative storytelling is approaching (speaking of) Garrison Keillor's elegant timing, throwing in a $10 word every now and then, precisely when its needed, to dress up the rest of his ten cent story, pausing to gauge response, and continue on. It's humorously hip and cool while being lovingly warm at the same time, as I've already written about the whole band. And how did I know it wasn't just polite clapping from the audience? The telling fan afterwards, who approached BJ and asked the question every local musician delights in hearing: "You guys were great, are you from around here?" Because as we all know, nobody who's any good could possibly come from your own hometown.

Photos to follow in a few weeks when I get in the darkroom. The stage was too dark to shoot ISO 400 digital -- so I pushed some film pretty far -- we'll see how that goes. Before the Spankers started their set, they respectfully requested that people turn off their cell phones, and keep the smoking to the back room, to my joy. The only reason they needed amplifiers was to fill the large room: they were about as unplugged as a band could get in both physics and ambience. I would have been crucified if I'd attempted flash, and I would have deserved it for ruining the atmosphere with a tacky burst of light. There was enough light coming from their souls as it was.


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