by Dan Williams
They’re as comfortable as your favorite old jeans.
Asleep at the Wheel is in their forty-fourth year and still bringing trademark Texas Swing to folks around the world. Philadelphia native and band founder Ray Benson started the band along with Lucky Oceans in 1970 at the height of the Vietnam War. Interestingly, it was a mention of them by Van Morrison in a Rolling Stone article that helped them land their first record deal. Since then, over ninety musicians have performed as members, but Ray Benson continues as the charismatic driving force.
Last night’s show at World Café Live was a homecoming for Benson. He told a number of stories about growing up in Philly, including his memory of The Dell and chuckled about his boyhood crush on Sally Starr. Coincidentally, I bumped into Benson’s cousin Jesse before the lights dimmed. Jesse told me that he has seen upwards of sixty performances of Asleep at the Wheel dating back to when he was just four years old and how he is always amazed at the talent of all the musicians who have come through Asleep at the Wheel.
The band launched into an array of classic tunes including “Get Your Kicks on Route 66” and “Hot Rod Lincoln.” But the real focus was on Still the King, their new album dropping the next morning. It’s the second album featuring songs by the great Bob Wills. The first was the superb 1999 release Ride With Bob. Still the King continues Benson’s goal of cementing the legacy of the great songwriter and is filled with guest performances by folks like Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Amos Lee, Merle Haggard and George Strait. Many of the tunes were performed live during the show by this very capable band. The playing was tight and the harmonies were spectacular.
While Benson is the front man and undisputed leader (after all, he’s a commanding 6’ 7” tall!), he is very generous in tossing the focus to his band mates as they sing lead on a variety of tunes throughout the show. Stand outs were the two ladies in the group: Keyboardist Emily Gimble with her blues inspired vocals and Katie Shore, the tiny fiddler with the broad smile and huge personality.
Emily Gimble performed most of the duets with Benson. Her stand out performance was the bawdy standard “A Good Man Is Hard To Find.” Besides that, she kept the honky-tonk piano flying all night.
Katie Shore spent the evening at center stage with a “I’m thrilled to be here” look on her face and added her breezy female voice to the tight harmonies. Her rendition of “It’s All Your Fault” put a smooth bright spin on one of my favorite tunes from 2009’s Willie and the Wheel. I know the song as performed by Willie Nelson on that album and was pleasantly surprised to hear a female take along with terrific harmonies from Benson.
Veteran Pedal Steel / Sax Man Eddie Rivers maintained a nice weepy pedal presence and was given the spotlight for an instrumental from his new solo album Plain Talkin’ Man. Later in the night, he grabbed his sax and along with Benson, wailed center stage to show stopper “Hot Rod Lincoln.”
But it all comes down to the charismatic presence of Ray Benson and his custom red Eastman guitar. It was a pleasure to watch a player with his ease of playing and soft touch with the pick. He can make the guitar cry and he can make it rock … hell, he even played it behind his head during one song! Anything to please the crowd! Add his comfortable wide ranging baritone voice, wit and insider stories of the music industry and you have a perfect ring leader for this magnificent band.
Asleep at the Wheel was brought out for three encore tunes that left the crowd on their feet. When the lights came up, I overheard one concertgoer say to a friend that this was a great example of “niche music.” He meant it as a compliment. He may be right, but I think most folks would say this was a universal feel-good experience that anyone would enjoy … just like that favorite pair of old jeans.