Willie and the Wheel

(Ray Benson posted this, and more pictures of the show, at his facebook site)

By Alexander Choman

WILKES-BARRE — This project was destined to be a winner from the very start. And Thursday evening’s concert at the F.M. Kirby Center for the Performing Arts proved that it was.

Willie Nelson teamed up with country swing band Asleep at the Wheel and transformed a superb recording, decades in the making, into a first-rate stage performance. The dream child of famed producer Jerry Wexler and Willie Nelson, “Willie and the Wheel” is on tour in support of the album of the same name just released this week nationwide.

On stage Thursday evening, Asleep at the Wheel founder Ray Benson and his talented band joined with legendary singer/songwriter Nelson for a two-hour artistic gem, playing most of the new album along with some of Nelson’s best known recordings before an audience of 1,650 people.

The concert featured Benson’s talented band showcasing sterling pedal steel guitar work and rollicking violin solos.

It was western swing meets New Orleans at its finest.

Nelson’s conversational, interpretive singing has always had its moments and his ventures into jazz and the standards at times seem to make the leap from his country roots too broad.

The western swing concept, though, seems just right.

I had some concern that the album version of “South,” featuring Vince Gill, could fall short in concert. Not even close. Benson’s group filled every nook and cranny with bountiful musical sounds that didn’t leave a single void.

Nelson’s distinctive gravely phrasing just seems down-home perfect for this genre. Offerings of “Sittin’ on top of the World,” “Won’t You Ride in my Little Red Wagon,” “Sweet Jennie Lee,” “Hesitation Blues” and “Oh, Pretty Woman” were just waiting in the vault for Nelson’s vocal treatment.

While the purpose and playlist for the show shed the spotlight on the collaborative effort, Nelson covered enough of his chestnuts to keep his loyal core audience happy. Versions of “Night Life,” “Funny How Time Slips Away,” “Whiskey River,” “Still is Still Moving to Me” and “Crazy” were signature Nelson. Each was met with a generous applause and a message of “Thanks, Willie!”

When musicians are expressive and doing something they truly enjoy, the results can often be something truly remarkable.

This foot-stompin’, hand clappin’ hootenanny of hillbilly jazz makes you wonder how people like Jerry Wexler had the foresight to see how good something like this would turn out.

Thursday night was only the second live show in support of the album. By the time this thing hits its stride and wraps up at Nelson’s club in Texas later this month, it will be something special … very special.

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