Since the Austin, Texas-bred Asylum Street Spankers have always had more in common with old-school vaudeville than with the doctrinaire alt-country that dominates their hometown, it’s not too surprising that they’d try their collective hand at an old-school, traveling-circus styled revue. What is surprising is how cleverly and seamlessly the ensemble managed to weave its pre-existing material into a narrative tapestry that conjured up images of Kinky Friedman, Ray Stevens and the Firesign Theater without seeming like a pastiche of these influences.
Clocking in at a fast-moving 90 minutes, “What? And Give Up Showbiz?” incorporates a dozen-and-a-half tunes from the band’s repertoire — both originals and well-chosen covers — into a storyline that reimagines “Hammer of the Gods” as an R. Crumb comic.
The book, built on fleshed-out codifications of the members’ road-tested stage banter, is somewhat slight, but the ratio of knee-slappers to groan-inducers is high enough to make it diverting. Fortunately, all involved remain primarily focused on the music itself, showing plenty of musical virtuosity (especially on the part of co-founder/harmonica blower Wammo and mandolin/dobro player Charlie King).
Show goes from zero to 60 relatively quickly, with “Everybody Loves My Baby” and “Winning the War on Drugs” setting a jovially rowdy tenor. Wammo fills the ringmaster’s role nicely, imbuing tales of van living and inhospitable club owners with a fine balance of wistfulness and rimshot-ready humor.
While his Garrison Keillor-gone-bad eccentricity had a certain charm, the program was best served when Christina Marrs stepped to centerstage. Part siren, part torch singer, she squeezed every last drop of spent sensuality from a spot-on version of “Since I Met You Baby.”
“What? And Give Up Showbiz?” suffers when the collective tongue burrows too deeply into cheek, as on “Hick Hop” and the too-flat “Beer.” But given the Spankers’ remarkably deft musicianship and bottomless pit of material — bad breaks and bad brakes are both likely to be part of the touring band vernacular for some time to come — the revue would seem to have legs. And, to quote their fellow Texans in ZZ Top, the Spankers know how to use ’em.