This has been a transitional year for Asleep at the Wheel. For the past few years, bandleader Ray Benson has publicly hinted that the Wheel might be headed for the scrap yard, but instead he’s opted for an overhaul. The band lost two key members at the end of 2013. Vocalist Elizabeth McQueen, who brought a hipster/sexy librarian presence to the group, left and now performs solo gigs in Austin. Fiddle player Jason Roberts, who performed the lead role in the Asleep at the Wheel play “A Ride with Bob,” now heads the Jason Roberts Band. He recently released an album (That’s My Home) and is performing gigs in Texas and on the Western swing circuit. McQueen and Roberts where replace by Fort Worth native Katie Holmes, who was once a member of the eclectic Austin outfit the Jitterbug Vipers and has never been married to Tom Cruise. And, to complete the scorecard, Emily Gimble, who is the granddaughter of Texas fiddle legend Johnny Gimble, recently replaced pianist Dan Walton.
Instrumentally, the Wheel is as solid as ever. Rhythm section David Sanger and David Miller provide the jazz oriented beat, while steel guitarist/saxophone player Eddie Rivers, pianist Gimble, and fiddler Holmes take turns with fills and leads. With the departure of McQueen and Roberts, Benson is handling more of the vocal chores, which he is more than capable of doing with his deep baritone voice. Holmes is a fine change of pace vocalist, but Gimble is the one to watch. Emily had played the Kessler before as a member of the Warren Hood band and she is a powerful, soulful singer. Once she develops more stage presence and confidence with the band, she’ll be an exceptional addition.
Benson is the Rick Nielsen of Western swing music – telling stories, cracking jokes, copying Pete Townshend’s windmill guitar moves. On this evening, Billy Briggs, a man that did session work with Bob Wills in 1951, participated in the set. The calendar may say that Briggs is 91 years old, but nobody told his saxophone. He wasn’t there as a novelty, he performed like he was still in the prime of his life.
I’ve never seen a bad Asleep at the Wheel show and this one was solid at times and sometimes moved from professionalism to true inspiration. One telling difference between Bob Wills and Benson is that Wills always had an edge of inspired chaos in his work. There was an improvisational sense of never knowing what was coming next. If anything, Benson colors within the lines too often, using tight arrangements that don’t allow the musicians to truly shine. However, on “Choo Choo Ch’ Boogie,” which was popularized by Louis Jordan in 1946, Billy Briggs, Jay Reynolds, and Eddie Rivers took turns playing thrilling saxophone solos that inspired a mid-set standing ovation. It was like the three men took the audience to the intersection where jump blues, jazz, and rock ‘n’ roll meet to dance together in wild abandon. The earth rumbled. The sky genuflected. Nothing else could have topped that, but Ray’s reading of Cindy Walker’s “You Don’t Know Me” was deeply moving and the cartoon sound effects of “Hot Rod Lincoln” are always smile inducing.
With an act based on nostalgia, there are some numbers that feel forced and I missed Roberts and McQueen. Still, it’s undoubtedly better to focus on what we have versus what we’ve lost and Asleep at the Wheel, forever defined by Benson’s tireless, jovial spirit, has never disappointed me. May the road go on forever.
Grade – A-
Miles and Miles of Texas
Don’t Fence Me In
Get Your Kicks on Route 66
I’m an Old Hand (From the Rio Grande)
A Good Man is Hard to Find
It’s Your Fault
Bob Wills Is Still the King
San Antonio Rose
Choo Choo Ch’Boogie
Old Fashioned Love
You Don’t Know Me
Hot Rod Lincoln
Bump Bounce Boogie
House of Blue Lights
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