Review: Asleep at the Wheel still kickin' it
The bumper stickers for sale in the Tower Theatre lobby read “Western Swing Music Ain’t Dead, It’s Asleep at the Wheel.”
Ain’t that the truth. Asleep at the Wheel has been keeping the music of Bob Wills alive for nearly half a century, and no one does it better.
The 10-time Grammy winners brought their boogie-woogie show to Tower Theatre on Thursday night where for an hour and 45 minutes they rewarded their longtime faithful fans with the band’s most popular tunes from “Cherokee Maiden” to “House of Blue Lights.”
Asleep at the Wheel keeps packing them in with its blend of country, jazz, blues, rockabilly and western swing for almost 50 years. The band was formed in 1970 in Paw Paw, West Virginia, then moved to California before taking up permanent residence in Austin, Texas, in 1973.
At 68 years old, frontman and founder Ray Benson is still going strong with no signs of slowing. The band’s influence is far beyond just Oklahoma and Texas.
After Thursday night’s show in Oklahoma City, the band is heading overseas for performances in the Netherlands, England and Switzerland.
More than 100 musicians have been members of Asleep at the Wheel during its nearly 50 years of existence, but Benson remains the one constant.
He told the Tower Theatre audience Thursday night that he was interviewed a lot for the much-anticipated and upcoming Ken Burns series on PBS on the history of country music because he was there when it was all happening.
It’s a good joke, but not that much of a stretch. Asleep at the Wheel has toured and recorded with many of the great artists in country music over the years.
For Burns’ documentary, Benson said the band was filmed performing the classic “San Antonio Rose” at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee, where Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys first did the same in 1944.
Benson said he first played in Oklahoma in 1971 in Seminole and spoke of having his first hit in Tulsa. There was a reason, of course, why it was a hit in Tulsa, he said. It was another Wills tune “Take Me Back To Tulsa,” which the band covered on their first album.
In an interview with Reuters a decade ago, Benson talked about discovering Wills’ music and how the band carved out their place in the music industry:
“We were too country for rock ‘n’ roll and too long-haired and weird for country,” Benson said. “So there was no place for us. But what happened was our first or second single, ‘Take Me Back to Tulsa,’ started playing in Tulsa, so all of a sudden people in Oklahoma liked us.
“When the record came out, people who understood what we were doing were (saying), ‘Wow! These young long-haired weirdos named Asleep at the Wheel are playing Bob Wills music.’ That’s when we found out just how popular Bob Wills was. We knew how great he was, but we didn’t realize he was the Elvis Presley of Texas, Oklahoma and the West Coast.”
The Oklahoma City audience Thursday night certainly came to hear those Wills classics, including “Faded Love” which in 1988 was designated as the state country and western song of Oklahoma, and Asleep at the Wheel didn’t disappoint.
The band also performed several songs from their most recent 2018 album “New Routes.” The album prominently features singer and fiddler Katie Shore, who joined the group in 2013 and performed a rip-roaring version of Johnny Cash’s “Big River” Thursday night. “New Routes” also includes Benson singing Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues” which was a big hit among the Tower Theatre audience.
Another crowd favorite was Asleep at the Wheel’s classic version of “Route 66,” which brought a roar from the audience every time Benson mentioned how “Oklahoma City looked oh so pretty.”
I got my kicks Thursday night not on Route 66, but on 23rd Street, or so I thought. The fun began at Big Truck Tacos, continued at the Tower Theatre and ended at Hurts Donuts.
But then I was reminded by fellow Tower Theatre patron Melvena Heisch of Oklahoma City that 23rd Street was actually part of the historic Route 66 route. The Gold Dome Bank at 23rd and Classen is an icon of the highway and even Tower Theatre’s neon sign was restored with a grant from the National Park Service’s Historic Route 66 Corridor Program.
"So, we were actually all getting our kicks on Route 66 last night," Heisch said.
–Ed Godfrey, The Oklahoman