by Chris Cowan
If Austin has music ambassadors, then they undoubtedly are Willie Nelson and Ray Benson, leader of the band, Asleep at the Wheel. The Wheel moved to Austin in 1974, at the request of Willie Nelson, and they helped create the Austin music scene. They were fixtures at Armadillo World Headquarters, and they were the very first act to appear on Austin City Limits. Since their arrival, nothing has ever been the same.
Last night’s show was a 40th anniversary celebration of Ray’s 9 time grammy award winning band. The featured guest was, of course, Willie Nelson. I hemmed and hawed for several days about whether to go to this show, or the kickoff night of Fun Fun Fun Fest, with Weird Al Yankovic. The prospect of seeing some roots music, and more importantly, a legend, won out some time late yesterday afternoon.
In addition to popping my cherry for seeing Willie live, this was my first show at the Long Center. I arrived at 7PM, and it’s a good thing because the show started promptly at 7:30. As it turns out, the early start was needed since the show ended just after 11:00.
At 49 years of age, I felt like a spring chicken in this crowd, with most of the audience much better dressed than a normal Austin crowd. So, mixed in with the Austin Opera patrons, there was a smattering of dance-hall cowboys, and outlaw, biker types. Your typical Willie Nelson crowd in other words.
The first set went well over two hours, with Ray and his current fiddler, Jason Roberts (Ray’s musical director?), being the only constants on stage. The set was subdivided into sections, for each decade of their career, with a video segue projected on drop down screen.
Ray announced that over 45 musicians were present, who were either presently in the band, or were members in the past. At one point, I counted 32 musicians on stage, at one time. At various points they had 5 pedal steel players, 6 fiddlers, a 6 piece horn section, and 6 different piano players on stage at the same time. Although unlike the others, the piano players had to time-share between 2 full concert grands.
The highlights for the first set for me, were the first decade band with Leon Perkins, and Lucky Oceans, and Floyd Domino. Leon’s song writing extends far outside of the sphere of the Wheel, and it’s amazing how many hits the man has under his belt. Ray was lamenting how many hits they had made for other artists.
Other highlights, were the section with Chris O’Connell, and a special appearance by Leon Rausch, an actual member of Bob Wills Texas Playboys, who must be in his 90′s now.
At intermission, the band invited the entire audience out to the patio for a group picture, and free beer. In addition, they had a table with about 7 posters, and they invited everyone present to sign them. I thought this was a great personal touch, and explains why so many people love Ray and his band.
The last set was all Willie and the current members of the Wheel for the most part. They played a combination of Willie’s hits, and a generous helping of the songs from Willie and the Wheel, an album that I love. Ray also mentioned that they were working a second Willie and the Wheel album, which he jokingly called WW2.
I don’t know what else to say, other than I was awe struck by Willie. What a performer! There’s something real and genuine about the man, that just oozes from the stage. This is something that you can’t fake. Perhaps next year, I will go to his 4th of July picnic, rather than punt like I did this year.
In closing let me say, I will follow other sites and update a complete list of musicians, and a setlist, if either materializes. And despite the no photos policy, I managed to get one shot at the very end.