Asleep at the Wheel,
Live at Billy Bob's Texas
(CD: Smith, 2003;
DVD: Smith, 2005)

"Shine your boots, friend. There'll be some toe-tappin' when you spin this CD!" So states the booklet that accompanies this prime slice of live Texas swing from the definitive practitioner of the genre, Asleep at the Wheel. Recorded April 18, 2003, at Billy Bob's Texas in the historic stockyards of Fort Worth, Texas, this cookin' live set is offered both on CD and DVD. The set list is the same on both formats, with the only exception being that the DVD has one extra song.

The sound is impeccably recorded and you don't even have to be traveling on Route 66 for the prospect of having this as the soundtrack for your next road trip to be reason enough to own the CD. The DVD, however, will really knock your socks off with its incredible high-definition video image and the same top-quality sound as the CD. The multi-camera shoot gives you an onstage view of the band performing without any intrusive or annoying camera techniques.

Straight away on the opener, "Miles and Miles of Texas," it is immediately cool to see how the trademark sound is created by a combination of two fiddles, two pedal steel guitars, electric guitar, keyboards, bass and drums. To watch the fiddles and the pedal steel guitars mesh with Ray Benson's electric lead is most amazing and makes the DVD totally essential. Benson's guitar and vocals are in top form and it's hard not to smile (or as the man said, tap your feet) while listening to this. The DVD also includes an interview/profile and photo gallery as bonus features.

It hardly seems like 30-plus years could have passed since the release of Asleep at the Wheel's very first album, Comin' Right at Ya, the clever title of which impressed this wee college deejay. It wasn't until some years later, listening to Benson's various tributes to Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys, that I came to really appreciate this music and the level of excellence that Benson and Asleep at the Wheel achieve every time out -- this show being an excellent example. Benson has so perfected Wills' style of western swing that Asleep at the Wheel can rightfully be considered the standard by which all others may be judged. Listening to the sound of "Route 66," it's hard to imagine until you see it on screen that such a small band could create this big gorgeous sound and it's quickly apparent that no one is better at this than Benson and company; this is prime live Wheel.

Fiddler Jason Roberts takes the lead vocal, and the fiddles and guitars all get a solo, on "One Six Pack to Go," with the steel guitar sounding almost Hawaiian and Benson showing he can play lead every bit as well as he sings. The other fiddler, Haydn Vitera, gets the lead vocal on an excellent version of the bilingual Freddie Fender classic, "Before the Next Teardrop Falls." The DVD-only track, "You Don't Know Me" is the classic slow blues tune, almost crooned by Benson in a performance that also makes the DVD mandatory. "You're from Texas" may have inspired Lyle Lovett's answer song "That's Right (You're Not from Texas)" but here on the home turf it sounds that much better, almost like hot dogs at the ballpark.

Townes Van Zandt's "If I Needed You" gives the late Texan singer-songwriter his due with a superb mellow rendition with some sweet soloing by the lead and steel guitars. "Boogie Back to Texas" shows that Asleep at the Wheel is a finely honed swingin' machine that puts the "western" back into "country and western." The fiddles rock on "Cotton Eyed Joe," making clear the ancestral connection between Celtic and country music. Everyone takes a solo on the honky-tonk closer, "Big Balls in Cowtown." At one point in the set, Benson explains that Bob Wills' "Take Me Back to Tulsa" was his first record and when he sings "I always wear a big old smile/never do look sour/travel round the country/playing music by the hour," that's about the size of it. Get the CD or the DVD or both, Asleep at the Wheel's Live at Billy Bob's Texas is western swing at its best -- and it's highly recommended.

- Rambles
written by William Kates
published 19 February 2005

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