They’re called the “kings of swing,” and that’s certainly a well-earned title. Ten-time Grammy-winning band Asleep at the Wheel will once again perform at the KTAOS Solar Center Wednesday (Aug. 16). Doors open at 7 p.m. The music starts at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25 in advance and $30 the day of the show, and all ages are welcome.
“Western Swing ain’t dead, it’s Asleep at the Wheel,” said a bumper sticker on a band’s tour bus that could be just about anywhere in the country at any time. Being asleep at the wheel could be a dangerous proposition, especially behind the wheel of a “Hot Rod Lincoln” (to quote a song that is more than likely on the set list for the evening).
Asleep at the Wheel has been around the steering wheel a few times. Taking a lesson from Bob Wills’ playbook, the band has been endlessly touring and releasing new music. It’s put out more than 20 albums and has charted more than 20 singles on the Billboard country charts.
How far back does the group go? Way, way back. In 1969, it all started when Ray Benson, Floyd Domino and Lucky Oceans (Reuben Gosfield) – along with Leroy Preston, Chris O’Connell and Gene Dobkin – joined forces. They found themselves opening for Alice Cooper and Hot Tuna in Washington, D.C. A year later, the bandmates moved to East Oakland, California, at the invitation of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. After being mentioned in Rolling Stone magazine by Van Morrison, the band landed a record deal with United Artists. In 1973, the group’s debut album, “Comin’ Right At Ya,” was released by United Artists. The bandmates moved to Austin in 1974 when Willie Nelson invited them to come to Texas.
They began with a simple goal: to play and help revive American roots music. This was a radical idea in the late 1960s, when rock ‘n’ roll ruled the airwaves and ticket sales.
“We wanted to break that mold,” Benson said on the band’s Facebook page. “We were concerned more with this amazing roots music, which we felt was being lost amid the politics. We were too country for the rock folks and we were too long-haired for the country folks. But everybody got over it once the music started playing.”
The musicianship of Asleep at the Wheel is legendary. Reuters pegged the group as “one of the best live acts in the business.”
Since the band took that page from Bob Wills’ book, constantly touring at a national level throughout its history, the lineup can feature anywhere from seven to 15 of the finest players Benson said he is able to talk into “jumping in the bus to play a string of dates.”
The alumni roster has more than 80 members, and that includes an impressive list of musicians who have gone on to perform with artists such as Bob Dylan, George Strait, Van Morrison, Lyle Lovett, Ryan Adams and others.
Western swing, Benson said, caught his attention not only because of its unique combination of elements of American blues, swing and traditional fiddling, but also for its “demanding musical chops.” The music style is what Benson calls “jazz with a cowboy hat.”
Jeff Miller of Flashpoint Arts wrote about an Alabama performance in 2015 by the band in glowing terms. He wrote, “If Ray Benson only sang, his contribution would be enough. Nobody else has his combination of Nat Cole, Tommy Duncan and Ken Curtis in his voice (all those his lower register, of course). His guitar work, however, has always been underrated, in my opinion. I watched closely and was amazed to take in all the subtleties that he added to the mix. Fills between phrases, harmony runs or doubling with other instruments, blistering solos, awkward chords and strange progressions – these were all handled as second nature. His tone was spot on.”
What kind of American roots music can you expect to hear at an Asleep at the Wheel concert? Just about anything from the Western swing lexicon, which includes anything Bob Wills might have recorded, along with classics by Louis Jordan, Willie Nelson, Cindy Williams and many others. Remember crossover classics from bands like Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, such as “Beat Me, Daddy, Eight to the Bar” or Jordan’s “Ain’t Nobody Here but Us Chickens”? Those songs are usually on the set list. That’s thWe kind of swing music that will most likely never die.
The group has managed to keep Western swing alive over the course of its long history, even if it’s simply Asleep at the Wheel.
For more information, call the venue at (575) 758-5826 or visit ktao.com.