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Encyclopedia Bri-twang-ica: Willie Nelson.

Photo: Joe Putrock

Swing Time

By Shawn Stone

Willie Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel

Palace Theatre, Feb. 15

Sometimes good ideas take decades to be realized. The latest Western swing collaboration between Willie Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel—touring under the moniker Willie and the Wheel—is one of them, and a rousing success.

When Nelson was on Atlantic in the ’70s, producer Jerry Wexler planned a Western swing album for him to record. It never happened, but Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson acquired the list of songs Wexler selected and, with the producer’s blessing (Wexler approved the tracks before his death last year), finally made it happen.

AATW opened the show with “Miles and Miles of Texas,” launching into 45 minutes of their own sweet brand of Western swing. “Route 66” was taken at a gallop; “Don’t Fence Me In” moved at a pleasing trot. Fiddler Jason Roberts gave out a couple of Bob Wills-style shouts (and played a number of tasty solos); 14-year-old fiddle prodigy Ruby Jane Smith stole the show a few times with her pyrotechnics. The soloists sounded great, including Eddie Rivers on steel guitar, Floyd Domino on keys, and the horn section of Jonathan Doyle (sax) and Shamarr Allen (trumpet).

The difference between what AATW do and what Wexler had in mind became obvious when reedman Doyle switched from tenor sax to clarinet when Nelson joined in the fun; the clarinet is an instrument of Dixieland and early blues. Yeah, yeah, I know: Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw. But when you hear the saxophone you don’t think early blues, and the songs Willie and the Wheel played had a more 1920s feel, with fewer nods to the more pop-style swing of the ’40s.

The songs they played are the best evidence: “Hesitation Blues,” “I’m Sittin’ On Top of the World” (which featured a fun duet with Nelson and guitarist Elizabeth McQueen), “Corrine Corrina,” “Won’t You Ride in My Little Red Wagon,” and “Fan It” are double- entendre-filled, not-quite-raunchy romps. They also knocked out a terrific version of Wills’ “Bring It On Down to My House.” They played almost the entire new album; the arrangements were tight and the band nailed it.

The swing material came in between the obligatory Nelson standards, which weren’t as sharp. The medley of “Funny How Time Slips Away,” ”Crazy,” and ”Night Life” was a bit ragged, but, near the end of the show, performances of “Pancho and Lefty” and “Angel Flying Close to the Ground” hit the mark.

Nelson was clearly having fun. Just when you thought the show was winding down, Nelson asked if anyone liked Hank Williams—and then launched into “Move It on Over,” followed by a couple more Williams tunes.

It wasn’t quite the entire history of country music on stage that night, but it was a hell of an anthology.


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