Asleep at the Wheel: At home on any stage
BY JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer
Monday, October 22, 2012
10/22/12 at 6:11 AM
Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson greeted the crowd at the start of the second half of the group's concert Friday night with the line, "Glad y'all made it back."
To which a woman from the back of the hall shouted, "Glad you made it, too!"
That someone in the usually sedate crowd that attends the Signature Symphony at Tulsa Community College's pops concerts would engage in a bit of very good-natured heckling obviously took Benson by surprise.
But after a second, Benson grinned widely and said, "So I guess the only difference between playing at the Cain's Ballroom and here would be you folks wouldn't spill beer on me."
"Tulsa's Timeless Honky-tonk" is the familiar setting for Asleep at the Wheel, which has been at the forefront of contemporary Western swing for the past 40 years.
But Benson and his six cohorts seemed quite at home on the stage of VanTrease PACE, with the Signature Symphony, under the direction of guest conductor Dan Wootton, augmenting the band's mix of Western swing classics, jazz and pop standards, even a bit of Beethoven, with some very fine performances of the inventive charts created for this evening of symphonic Western swing.
Asleep at the Wheel doesn't need a whole lot of help to put on a great show. This is a band with superior musical chops, from the individual artistry of fiddler Jason Roberts and steel guitarist Eddie Rivers (playing an instrument once owned by one of Bob Wills' Texas Playboys) to the group's spot-on four-part harmonies.
But the orchestral arrangements, prepared by Jeff Tyzik and John Mills, truly add something unique to what the band does - dropping a bit of Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing" into "Cherokee Maiden," for example, or melding the "country-politan" strings of Patsy Cline's version of "Faded Love" with the straight-ahead Wills rendition.
Rhythm guitarist Elizabeth McQueen turned "Old Cow Hand" into a kind of torch number with some sly and sassy phrasing, while Roberts got to employ the Bob Wills voice he developed for the musical "A Ride With Bob," tossing in the sort of interjections Wills would add as the band played "San Antonio Rose." Roberts also occasionally employed a highly processed sound and judicious use of double-stops to create the illusion of twin fiddles.
Benson also showed off his versatility on guitar, with a few rockabilly lead runs on electric guitar, some acoustic finger-picking to introduce the band's distinctive take on the "Ode to Joy" from the Ninth Symphony by Beethoven ("Not Ludwig," Benson joked in his introduction to the tune, "Billy Bob Beethoven - lives in Fredricksburg, Texas"), and some Spanish-style flourishes through Dmitri Tiomkin's "Green Leaves of Summer," part of a mini-tribute to what Benson called "the most historically inaccurate movie of all time," the 1961 film "The Alamo."
Benson also indulged in a bit of silliness during Dan Walton's piano solo in "House of Blue Lights," by demonstrating his skills at juggling. And everyone got into the fun for the zany rendition of the Commander Cody hit, "Hot Rod Lincoln," which Benson described as "a cross between Spike Jones and P.D.Q. Bach," with quotes from the "Dragnet" theme and a host of bizarrely funny sound effects.
Benson referred to Tulsa as the band's "second home," and paid tribute to it with a great version of Wills' "Take Me Back to Tulsa" and an encore of "The Texas Playboys Theme," complete with references to Tulsa and radio station KVOO, where Bob and Johnny Lee Wills held musical court for decades.
Original Print Headline: Asleep at the Wheel at home on any stage
James D. Watts Jr. 918-581-8478