Monday, March 4, 2013
Concert review: Asleep at the Wheel follows new documentary with stellar concert
The Wheel may be getting old, but as it reminded fans Friday night, it just keeps rollin’ along.
Asleep at the Wheel has been around so long -- 43 years, to be exact -- it’s hard to remember just how strange the band once seemed.
In Then and Now – a short documentary film that premiered Friday at the Eisemann Center before the group performed – fiddler Johnny Gimble of Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys is asked his first impression of the Wheel after meeting them in the early 1970s.
“They needed a bath,” he says with a grin bordering on a sneer.
Country’s old guard gave the stink eye to all young longhairs who dared to play country music in the Age of Aquarius. But even the hippies weren’t too sure about Asleep at the Wheel.
The turning point in Then in Now arrives in 1974, when the band moves from San Fran to Austin after Willie Nelson assures them Texans will embrace their traditional country music better than the California hippies did. As usual, Willie was right.
The Wheel went on to win nine Grammys and become “the national band of Texas,” to quote group member Elizabeth McQueen in the film. Their concert Friday showed why. Instead of trying to rejigger Western swing, they simply let it be and allow their impeccable musicianship to shine.
Ray Benson led the band with his booming baritone and fast, bluesy electric guitar. Vocalist McQueen added a sweet torch-song touch to Wills’ classics “Sugar Moon” and “I Wonder if You Feel the Way I Do.” And Eddie Rivers put the bloom back in “San Antonio Rose” with a particularly saucy pedal steel solo.
But the surprise star of the show was guest sax player Billy Briggs, who made his name in the 1950s with Willis. At age 90, he can still breathe fire, and the crowd gave him a standing ovation for his soul-stirring solos in “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” and “Take Me Back to Tulsa.”
Benson – the only original Wheeler after dozens of lineup changes – joked that he hired a stunt actor to play the skinny, long-haired version of himself in the film. While the hair’s long gone and the paunch has grown, the 61-year-old Benson was the same spirited performer he’s always been – juggling balls, tongue-twisting up a storm and wind-milling at his guitar Pete Townshend-style at the end of “Hot Rod Lincoln.” The Wheel may be getting old, but as it reminded fans Friday night, it just keeps rollin’ along with a steady eye and a keen sense of swing.
Thor Christensen is a Dallas freelance writer.
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