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We don’t need no amplification: Asylum Street Spankers at the Van Dyck. Photo by: Chris Shields

Getting Current
By David Greenberger

Asylum Street Spankers
The Van Dyck, April 9

‘It’s Good Friday, and boy, I know what would make it good!” Thus spake the full-sized, single-named Wammo, co-leader of the Asylum Street Spankers. Last Friday night’s show at the Van Dyck was full of references to pleasures of the flesh and a gloriously intoxicated mind. (Their song “Beer” combined them both, with the unforgettable line, “Marijuana makes me want to eat candy and fuck Madonna.”) The band’s songs are part of a grand tradition that dates back to Prohibition-era ditties, which themselves hark back to the bawdy songs of merry olde England and anywhere else that happy citizens celebrated the one sure thing that no law ever fully chases away (that’s both sex and drugs).

Parallels can be drawn to Dan Hicks & His Hot Licks from the ’70s and the Squirrel Nut Zippers of the ’90s. Thankfully, Asylum Street Spankers are ripe with the prankster attitude of the former rather than the smarty revivalism of the latter (who were flashy, but also a flash in the pan). With one member sidelined for health reasons, they performed as a six-piece, and showed themselves to be a nicely matched team of players. Vocals were handled primarily by the aforementioned Wammo and guitarist-banjoist Christina Marrs, the two of whom actually sounded like seven or eight different singers, depending on the song. In the grand tradition, several of the other players also stepped forward for their turn in the spotlight on a song or two.

A.S.S. (and methinks they take full-blooded delight in their sassy acronym) are known for performing sans électrique. Which is to say, they all play acoustic instruments and eschew public-address systems for natural room ambience. However, they are now becoming sufficiently successful for this approach to become a limitation. The Van Dyck was their second trial run utilizing headset mics: They’re working this out before taking the stage in the larger venues they’ve been stepping up to. Their sound and approach have been honed over the past decade and were never tied to the need for microphones. Now, they’re setting out to make technology work for them, and, once they get used to the contraptions discreetly strapped to their heads, they’ll do just fine. In fact, the sound system caught nuances that otherwise would be lost over even hushed chatter and standard waitstaff activities.

The most magical moment of the evening was a personal one, unique to where I was seated. Marrs switched to the saw for a sweetly moving rendition of Harry Nilsson’s “Think About Your Troubles.” As she sang the line “Think about the bubbles,” a waitress poured water into a glass two tables away, the ice cubes clinking as only ice cubes dropping from pitcher to a partially filled water glass can.

Midway through the set, the band had the PA turned off and finished up totally unplugged. It worked fine, although a song or two was required to adjust the sound level of the room to the band. And, having been exposed to those nuanced details (such as the sound of brushes on a drum head), the acoustic remainder depended more heavily on broader gestures. If Friday’s show was any indication, Asylum Street Spankers should be able to step into the big leagues without becoming a caricature of their former selves.

Li’l Pop Overthrow

Pernice Brothers, The Long Winters
Valentine’s, April 12

Spring may not have completely sprung yet, but its onset was surely felt, or at least anticipated, during a night of heavy changes at Valentine’s on Monday. The dank spring rain that greeted patrons was perfectly suitable for the lush melancholia of the evening’s headliners. The show was moved to the upstairs stage at the last minute due to what was expected to be a considerably larger turnout than at the Pernice Brothers’ last Albany appearance. When all was said and done, the show probably could have been staged downstairs—there were exactly 100 people in attendance—but the larger stage and beefier sound system benefited the presentation handily. It may have been the best the upstairs room has sounded in ages, in fact, and it couldn’t have happened on a better night.

Both bands had minor changes in their starting lineups, but if there were any negative effects, they sure didn’t show. The grizzled-looking, trucker- cap-sporting Ric Menck (Velvet Crush, Matthew Sweet) was called in to pinch-hit for regular touring drummer Patrick Berkery (also of Philly’s poptastic Bigger Lovers), who had to leave mid-tour for a family emergency. Menck reportedly learned all of his parts on the plane from Los Angeles, but his authoritative trap playing made it sound like he’d been in the Pernice fold for a decade. In their appearance at Valentine’s last June, the band seemed tentative, likely due to having two new members on board (Berkery and keyboardist-guitarist James Walbourne were new for this tour) and very little rehearsal time. On Monday night, the cobwebs had been shaken down and swept out, the group sounded fresh and vigorous, and their muscled up sound rang out loud and proud.

New textures and supporting melodies were in abundance throughout the band’s 75-minute set. The replacement of original Pernice “Brother” Laura Stein with British whiz-kid Walbourne has paid off in spades, as he spent the night bouncing back and forth between interpreting the string arrangements from the band’s first two records and interjecting head- turning guitar leads. The unfailingly dapper Peyton Pinkerton—one of the best color players in pop music—and Walbourne knocked the Overcome by Happiness gem “Monkey Suit” out of the park with a dazzling dual-guitar lead, and, together, they created gorgeous new backdrops for “She Heightened Everything” and “Baby in Two.”

Oh yeah, and the songs are nothing to sneeze at, either. Joe Pernice makes poetry seem unnecessary—he’s one of the only writers currently operating that could get away with releasing a compilation book of his song lyrics and not seem pretentious or self-aggrandizing. He’s got one hell of a way with simile (“The city lights up like a dirty dime”) and a knack for making “the worst of a bad situation” (as he sang on the night’s final song, “Cronulla Breakdown”). Even on the sunny new-romance nugget “The Weakest Shade of Blue,” he describes said new romance as “ruinous and true,” as if preparing for the inevitable letdown. If it weren’t for his death grip on Beatleworthy pop melody, we’d probably be calling him Morrissey.

The Long Winters set the bar fairly high with a loose, fun opening set. Absent keyboardist-vocalist Sean Nelson—he bailed on this tour to rekindle his long-dormant “other” band, Harvey Danger—the lean, mean three-piece reinterpreted the expansive horn- and string-augmented big pop arrangements of their excellent 2003 LP When I Pretend to Fall as straight-up rock & roll. Their double-Rickenbacker attack made for a rich and, yes, jangly sound, calling to mind the Jam on “Carparts” and Fall’s opening track, “Blue Diamonds,” which took shape as a mean, toothy groove in Nelson’s absence. “Shapes” and “Cinnamon” smacked of Green-era R.E.M. through the sonic shade of Neutral Milk Hotel, and singer-guitarist John Roderick was affable and charismatic, joking with the crowd and entertaining requests, including a learned-on-the-spot stab at Neil Diamond’s “Solitary Man.”

—John Brodeur

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