You could have had the worst Monday known to mankind and it would not have mattered, providing you were on hand earlier tonight as Ray Benson and Asleep at the Wheel turned the Lyric Theatre into a Lone Star dance hall.
Born not in its four decade old home of Austin but in rural West Virginia (“the suburbs of Paw Paw,” as Benson put it tonight), Asleep at the Wheel is a multi-generational ambassador of Western swing – a light, elegant but driving sound that blends the seemingly incongruous camps of country and jazz.
During its featured set tonight for the 800th taping of the WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, Benson remained the sheriff of swingtown as well as an ageless cheerleader for Asleep at the Wheel’s richly animated songs. But if anything defined the band’s country-jazz mash-up, it was the jubilant instrumental harmony created by clarinetist/saxophonist Jay Reynolds, fiddler Katie Shore and especially lap steel guitarist Eddie Rivers. All were spirited soloists, but when they combined forces on bright melody lines, the trio made Asleep at the Wheel sound like a full swing orchestra.
Then again, there were several instances when the band became exactly that. Once the Quebe Sisters (a fiddle trio from Fort Worth that played like swing scholars and sang like the Andrew Sisters) and their rhythm players joined in, the ensemble grew to a dozen players. That gave Western swing classics like Navajo Trail and Miles and Miles of Texas a huge, sweeping sound that enveloped the theatre.
The thrust of the performance was Still the King, Asleep at the Wheel’s third and newest tribute album to Texas swing patriarch Bob Wills. Benson has long been a natural for Wills’ fiddle-savvy music as well as its inherent sense of playfulness, which was expertly emphasized on the mischievous I Hear Ya Talkin’.
But not even the iconic Wills could contain Asleep at the Wheel’s massive sound. When Benson, Rivers and a monstrous blast of boogie-woogie piano from Emily Gimble ignited on Route 66 (along with giddy vocal tradeoffs from Benson, Gimble and Shore), the music became as big and robust as a Texas twilight.