Asleep at the Wheel Lacked Real Swing at the Kessler Theater on Friday

Asleep at the Wheel Kessler Theater, Dallas Friday, February 20, 2015

What to say about Asleep at the Wheel? The band is both a tribute and throwback to Texas Swing music, that glorious mash-up of country music and big-band jazz. And the band -- well, leader Ray Benson, anyway -- provides one of the few visible direct links to the cosmic cowboy scene of '70s Austin. The Wheel plays music that is timeless, infectious, and is meant for dancing. In short, the Wheel is near and dear to me.

See also: Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel The 20 Best Songs Ever Written About Dallas

And the Wheel should be to anyone with Texas in their DNA, by birth or otherwise -- a feeling that is shared by a good many people. When the band hit Dallas for a double feature at The Kessler Theater on Friday night, the audience consisted of obvious long-time fans. I have not seen an audience this old at a concert in Dallas, ever. Yes, for once, I was not the old man in the club.

Taking the stage around 9:30 for the second of their two sets that night, Benson and associates had all the right ingredients: Piano, a couple of fiddle players, a three-piece horn section, peddle steel, rhythm section and of course the hulking Benson himself. Asleep at the Wheel is clearly his show. He's the only consistent member over the life span of the band, which has racked up nine Grammy's over this long history. With his boots, cowboy hat and six-foot 10-inch frame, he dwarfs his Gibson 335 and defines the term "gentle giant."

The band launched into their set of classic Texas swing, Benson explaining that they were doing a few shows with this expanded band as a warm-up to an Austin City Limits taping net week. The set was loaded with country and swing classics like "Miles and Miles of Texas," Bob Wills standards like "I Hear You Talking" and Cindy Walker's "Milk Cow Blues." These are songs guaranteed to put a smile on your face and, space permitting, your feet in motion.

But as difficult as this is to say, the show was a mild disappointment. It skewed more on the side of nostalgic than honest-to-goodness swing. With that said, I acknowledge that my own long memory of the band may be a contributing factor to this letdown.

Here's the thing: Despite loading the stage with 10 excellent musicians, the music strangely lacked power. Part of this was the setting. This is, after all, dance hall music. With table seating filling the small floor of The Kessler, wonderful as it may be as a music venue, boot scootin' was never on the agenda. Maybe the source of the diminished sound was the band's own sound engineer, more used to the dynamics of a room like Billy Bob's than the tiny Kessler. Even the low-level stage lighting contributed to the murk. Whatever, somehow the music felt small. Well played, but with no punch. And the new youth in the band -- a girl fiddle player and a guy that switched between fiddle and mandolin -- seemed to feel obligated to grin and gesture manically to the point of distraction.

This is not to say it was bad. It wasn't. Benson is a big presence and a genuinely nice guy. The aging bodies (including an original Texas Playboy) of the horn section play young in a way that makes you grin. The band is a well-oiled machine. And with this tour, dubbed "Still the King" in reference to the music of Bob Wills, draws deeply from an absolutely magical songbook.

It's more than fair to say a good time was had by all. Hearing virtually everyone in the audience sing "Happy Trails" along with the band was more than enough evidence of that. But if you really want to enjoy this band, see them where you -- and they -- can swing.


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