While the sound is rooted in old country with mandolin, acoustic and steel guitar, Chris Grabau on electric guitar and Beth Kathiner on bass created a backbone for modern takes on the classic breakdown.
Eilen Jewell returned to the festival she last played in 2009. Initially Jewell paled a bit to guitarist Jerry Miller's presence. With dark glasses he never removed, and an orange Gretsch guitar he handled like a weapon, he seemed primed to steal the show.
But when Jewell announced that she was the "Queen of the Minor Key," before opening with the song of the same name, she didn't waiver from the spotlight as she led her band through western swing, honky tonk waltzes and country cover songs, and then ending with the blues. Through the genres Jewell and her band keep the country thread running. A take on Billie Holiday's "Fine and Mellow" that highlighted a warm timbre in Jewell's voice similar to Holiday's without losing Jewell's western country roots. Ending with a Bessie Smith melody, she married classic blues and country and western, blurring the thin lines that too often separate American musical styles.
For over 40 years Ray Benson's Asleep at the Wheel has paid homage to classic western swing, amassing awards and accolades as the only history lesson needed in the genre. The seven-member lineup has changed through the years, but Benson and Texas music history remain the focus.
The band performs tight; they've nearly perfected their stage presence and give the feel of an old musical revue where musical style and individual virtuosity are top priority.
It's not painfully tight by any means. Benson still means it when he hollers, "Are you ready to boogie?" before the boogie piano opening of "Route 66." And yes, the crowd was ready to boogie. It's been awhile since the band played a club instead of a seated theater in St. Louis. The sold-out audience wasn't so tightly packed that they couldn't swing and boogie like they'd been waiting awhile to do so.
While Asleep at the Wheel performs some originals ("The Letter That Johnny Walker Read"), they're at their best reinterpreting the works of Texas musicians spanning the modern era. Bob Will and the Texas Playboys are never far from the band's soul and set list with opener "Cherokee Maiden," "San Antonio Rose" and "It's a Good Day" -- and again in Waylon Jennings' "Bob Wills is Still the King." More obscure Texas musicians like Dale Watson ("Truckin' Man") stand beside the popularity of George Strait ("Big Balls in Cowtown").
Willie Nelson's there, too, of course. He recorded the album "Willie and the Wheel" with them in 2009. Benson joked that he's the world's tallest Nelson impersonator when he joined singer-guitarist Elizabeth McQueen for "Sitting on Top of the World," the duet she recorded with Nelson. Her voice added a sweetness to temper Benson's thundering signature baritone. Nelson was also honored with "Hesitation Blues" and "Faded Love." Although made famous by non-Texan Patsy Cline, the band gave it subtle western hints with Dan Walton's high piano and the mourning of Jason Roberts' fiddle.
There were plenty of songs we all know, too. The band went classic cowboy with Gene Autry's "Don't Fence Me In" and "Happy Trails" for the encore. McQueen put her own jazzy vocal touch on "I'm an Old Cowhand (From the Rio Grande)" that fit the song's faux cowpoke.
The Wheel built momentum as it neared the end. A dual saxophone attack kept Louis Jordan's "Choo Choo Ch'boogie" linked to the jump blues original while the swing continued into a tall-tale-filled, sound effect-laden tear-up of "Hot Rod Lincoln." One of the band's most beloved songs, Benson riled up the backroad race classic, his presence never larger on the crowded stage, with even the band members who've witnessed his performance still looking engaged by his story.
That would have been an apt finale, but instead they tore into "The House of Blue Lights," with Benson even juggling, catching the balls on the brim of his black hat before saying goodbye to a pumped crowd, returning for an encore of "Happy Trails" and one last nod to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, acknowledging their legacy as they always have - with honor instead of kitsch, and originality instead of imitation.
Asleep at the Wheel set list:
Miles and Miles of Texas
Don't Fence Me In
I'm an Old Cow Hand (From the Rio Grande)
Blues Stay Away From Me
It's a Good Day
Bob Wills is Still the King
San Antonio Rose
Big Balls in Cowtown
St. Louis Blues
The Letter that Johnny Walker Read
Bring it on Down to My House
Sitting on Top of the World
Choo Choo Ch'Boogie
Hot Rod Lincoln
House of Blue Lights