Bri-twang-ica: Willie Nelson.
Nelson, Asleep at the Wheel
Theatre, Feb. 15
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
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.