Lots of bands come from Austin, Texas, but few resemble the Asylum Street Spankers. The septet"s sound is old-timey, flavored with banjo, ukulele, trombone, washboard and the occasional bowed saw. Four members take turns singing lead and writing tunes that draw from "20s jazz, blues, folk and elsewhere, laced with bawdy innuendo and pop-culture references.
"Some people say we"re kind of a modern-day vaudeville band," says clarinetist-guitarist Stanley Smith, who will perform with his colleagues Thursday at Radio Radio. "I"ve been playing in the band eight years, and I haven"t come up with any better description."
When the Spankers call themselves "all-acoustic," that means no amplification, not even a PA for vocals. They made an exception recently, miking up for the massive outdoor Roskilde Festival in Denmark. But for a standard club gig, the Spankers need a concert-like atmosphere to pull it off.
"It doesn"t work if our audience is too rowdy," Smith says. "We try not to be Nazi about the whole thing, but once in a while we have to say something."
Smith will probably cut some slack to an audience he considers a hometown crowd.
In the mid-"70s, he was among a group of Talbott Street bohemians who founded the Hummingbird CafÈ, a refuge for the city"s neglected jazz community. The club later moved up to 71st and Keystone - site of present-day Birdy"s Bar & Grill - and hit its stride in the early "80s as a tour stop for national jazz, blues and roots acts such as Mose Allison, Gary Burton, David Grisman and John Hiatt.
Smith is still proud of what the Hummingbird accomplished at a time when the city was very much tuned in to Bob Seger, REO Speedwagon and the like. "I think we at least broke down some barriers," Smith says. "No one else was doing it, and we were busting ourselves out doing it and going broke, but we kept doing it."
The unofficial house band at the Hummingbird was the Strugglers, a group as hard to categorize as the Spankers. The Strugglers used pedal steel, clarinet, guitar and harmonica to create an amalgam of jazz, Chicago blues and Western swing.
"We were probably, for Indianapolis, way ahead of our time," Smith says. "If that band had been in Austin, Texas, we would have been stars."
With Smith returning this week to Indiana, where other former Strugglers still live, Thursday"s 9 p.m. show poses an opportunity for a reunion, and so it shall be. The opening act for the Spankers will be the original Struggler lineup of Scott Ballantine on guitar, Dave Langfitt on pedal steel, Joe Langfitt on bass, Jack Clarke on harmonica and Kevin Hughey on drums, with Smith on clarinet.
The show will be the Strugglers" first in eons, Ballantine said, not counting a one-off reunion at a private party several years ago. He noted that even when the band worked regularly, its following was limited to a loyal, but not large, cult.
"It wasn"t that great when we played six nights a week," said Ballantine, a longtime local musician, guitar teacher and music shop owner. "If we play once every 10 or 15 years, people might come see it."
The Spankers, on the other hand, have kept exceedingly busy the past several years, and in September will release their fifth full-length album, My Favorite Record, on their own Spanks-A-Lot label, distributed by Bloodshot. Eleven musicians are featured on the record, reflecting the always evolving roster.
The key figures are singer-songwriter-multi-instrumentalists Christina Marrs, whose tastes lean toward ragtime and a flapper persona, and a fellow named Wammo, who often works in the folk-blues vein. Smith, at 57, is the elder statesman of the multigenerational act, which many 20-something musicians have used as a training ground.
"The Spankers has kind of served as a springboard for a lot of players, to get their touring wings, so to speak," he says.
The band takes its name from Guadalupe Street in Austin, which ran past the state mental hospital.
"Then we tacked on the word "spankers," which can go in a lot of different directions," Smith says with a chuckle. "In our case, it"s an old jazz term for somebody who plays their instrument particularly hard and lively, spankin" your guitar or whatever."
The band plays 150 dates a year, ranging from bar gigs to more experimental ventures. One sideline for the Spankers is to buy reels of 1920s silent films and make the rounds of film festivals, supplying the accompaniment with instrumental versions of their own stylistically appropriate songs. The ploy gets the band into a lot of venues that otherwise would not be open to them, such as the upcoming Aspen Film Festival.
"There"s a lot of really incredible old theaters left, especially out West, and there"s all kinds of film festivals and film societies in every city," Smith says. The band"s highly visual style has attracted the attention of the Comedy Central cable channel, which is flirting with the Spankers over the possibility of some as-yet-undetermined project.
Needless to say, TV would be an exciting new frontier for the band, but if it doesn"t work out, that"s OK too. "In the meantime, we"re going to keep doing our movie thing and playing our gigs," Smith says.
Scott Hall is music writer for the Daily Journal in Johnson County and The Zone in Columbus.