Home Live Review Live Review: Asleep at The Wheel w/ Jill Lordi @ The Birchmere — 8/10/23

Live Review: Asleep at The Wheel w/ Jill Lordi @ The Birchmere — 8/10/23

Live Review: Asleep at The Wheel w/ Jill Lordi @ The Birchmere — 8/10/23
Asleep at the Wheel performs live. (Photo by Mike Shore)

For 53 years, Ray Benson and the Western swing revival group Asleep at the Wheel have been coming to DC. Recently, they played once again at The Birchmere, a venue they’ve been coming to since 1981, when it was a smaller building that held a smaller audience.

A native of Philadelphia, Benson can easily be considered a giant of the Western swing revival, and not just because he’s 6′-7″. In 1970, he and some friends moved to rural West Virginia, near a place called Paw Paw. Despite not having a bass player, they soon began to play in bars in the District, especially the ones on M Street. The scene was breaking open at the time, and one of their friends was a young and not-quite-yet-discovered singer named Emmylou Harris. At the time, Ray noted, the big acts played at Georgetown’s long-since closed Cellar Door, but Asleep at the Wheel weren’t big enough to play that venue.

More than five decades letter, Asleep at the Wheel has won 10 Grammys and become the standard bearer for Western swing music. If you don’t know much about that genre, the easiest way to describe it is as a fusion between jazz and country. It’s big band music: In addition to Ray’s electric guitar, the band included fiddle, upright bass, keys/accordion, sax/clarinet, steel guitar, and drums. The connection to jazz was underscored by opening act Jill Lordi who, accompanied by guitar and upright bass, performed several American standards at The Birchmere on August 10: “Dream a Little Dream of Me” (best known for Mama Cass Elliot’s version), “Blue Moon,” “Wayward Wind,” and “After Midnight” (she is, as she noted, a big fan of Patsy Cline), and “Gentle Rain.”

While Benson has written songs, most of The Wheel’s repertoire consists of covers, especially of songs made famous by Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. The recent Birchmere set included “Take Me Back To Tulsa” (which was the first record the Wheel released), “Tiger Rag,” “Milk Cow Blues,” and “San Antonio Rose.” The set also included “Bob Wills Is The Still The King,” a song written in tribute by Waylon Jennings.

Watch Asleep at the Wheel perform live for Paste Studio Atlanta on YouTube:

Since the mid-’70s, Asleep at the Wheel has been based in Austin, Texas, where Ray befriended Willie Nelson. They released a Grammy-winning album together, Willie and the Wheel. On Thursday, they covered a couple of his songs: “Angel Flying Too Close To the Ground” and “On The Road Again.” Another great of country music, George Strait was also covered with “All My Exes Live In Texas.” 

Early in the Wheel’s career, they came under the influence of country-rockers — and wildmen — Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. I spoke to Ray a few years ago, and he told me that, without Cody, there’d be no Wheel. The main set ended with a song made famous by that band, “Hot Rod Lincoln,” dedicated to the late Commander and the band’s guitarist, Bill Kirchen.

Ray seems to enjoy having reached his later years, and he is not averse to hitting the audience with a dad joke. “Why did the chicken cross Hollywood Boulevard?” he asked the audience, then hit the punchline: “To see Gregory Peck.” This was all a way of setting up the song, “Nobody Here But Us Chickens,” which is a sadly underused phrase nowadays.

The set opened with “Cherokee Maiden,” followed by “Miles and Miles of Texas.” In a touching moment, Ray told the audience, “Everything I needed to know, I learned from Jiminy Cricket,” before playing “When You Wish Upon A Star.” The set also included “Red River Valley,” which was played, I think, as a medley with a Marshall Tucker Band song. Returning for the encore, the Wheel played “Big Balls in Cowtown,” then sent the audience home with “Happy Trails.”

The musicianship on display at The Birchmere was top notch, and the atmosphere for the concert was second to none. The audience was really into the show, and there was a boisterous, cheerful party atmosphere. Beneath his expansive beard, I could see that Ray was smiling: He seemed to be having a great time, and so was everyone else.


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