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The Lowdown:

Asleep at the Wheel

Ray Benson (vocals/guitar), Elizabeth McQueen (guitar/vocals (absent on maternity leave)), David Miller (bass/vocals), Eddie Rivers (steel guitar), Jason Roberts (fiddle/vocals), David Sanger (drums), Dan Walton (piano/vocals)

Based In:
Austin, TX


Americana, country, Western swing


The Kent Stage, Kent, OH

Concert Date:
September 9, 2011

Opening Acts:


Related Articles:

Asleep at the Wheel performs at the Kent Stage

Rating: 9 out of 10



September 12, 2011


Asleep at the Wheel: The Kent Stage, 9/9/11

by Alan "Pender" Pendergrass


Asleep at the Wheel performing live at the Kent Stage in Kent, Ohio. (l-r)David Miller, Dan Walton, David Sanger, Ray Benson, Jason Roberts, Eddie Rivers. Elizabeth McQueen was absent on maternity leave. Photo by Jaosn D. 'Diesel' Hamad, No Surf Music.


As I sat on the leather sofa of Asleep at the Wheel’s tour bus, watching the PBS News Hour on their sweet flat screen TV, I couldn’t help feeling a little overwhelmed. This was my first go around with a No Surf Music Burning River Fireside Chat. Granted, I was mostly along for the ride, but still, I was there. And, I mean, it wasn’t Steely Dan’s tour bus, but dammit, Asleep at the Wheel is pretty cool. So the fan in me overpowered the (so-called) music “journalist” in me for the first few minutes or so.

We were there—Diesel and I—to interview Ray Benson, frontman of Asleep at the Wheel, the great ambassadors of Western swing music who have been around in one form or another (with lots of lineup changes) for forty one years. Well, Diesel was there to interview him. My focus was the show that immediately followed. I bring up the interview itself mostly because it was cool, but also because it caused me to miss virtually all of the opening act’s set.

First things first, the show was in lovely downtown Kent, Ohio and the movie-theater-turned-music-venue The Kent Stage. No Surf has chronicled the details of this place before, but in short it makes up for in comfort (theater seating!) and acoustics (lots of heavy movie theater drapery) what it lacks in architectural charm. Eh, they can’t all be Beachland Ballrooms.

Local boy Roger Hoover opened the night with a little bit of roots music, heavy on the blues. Photo by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad, No Surf Music.

Folk/blues/roots rock musician Roger Hoover opened up. As I said, most of his set was over by the time we shuffled into our seats, but I did catch his last tune, which I feel safe in assuming was typical of his repertoire.  He’s a Kent local who plays electric and slide guitar and has a standing gig Thursday nights at the Water Street Tavern just around the corner. Until the band’s recent breakup, Hoover was the frontman for local roots rock group the Magpies. On this occasion he was accompanied by upright bass player Kevin Martinez—not a terribly common combination in blues. It seemed to work though—I enjoyed what little I heard even if blues isn’t always my thing. I can tell you his Kent connections played well with the crowd.

Of course, the real story is Asleep at the Wheel. They’re a truly unique band. They specialize in covers—mostly of songs written (long) before I was born—and they do them all in a Western swing style, which is not exactly in vogue at the moment. Nor has it been, frankly, since Bob Wills. And even then probably only in Texas. It developed in the 1930’s and 40’s out of a movement to combine popular music—at the time jazz and swing—with country and Western music, much as formed from the fusion of country and rock half a century later. The result was a style of music like no other, combining the musical complexity of jazz, the danceable kick of swing, the down-home sensibility of country, and the “screw you, we’re from Texas” attitude of Western.

Western swing music is fantastic and deserves much more mainstream country acceptance than it gets. What little respect this sub-genre does receive today is largely due to Asleep at the Wheel, which has been its standard bearer since 1970. Though Grammy awards and musical quality don’t always go hand in hand, it’s worth noting that these guys have won nine of them, and in four separate decades. “But who’s counting?” as Ray said.

Asleep at the Wheel always puts on a good show. I think Diesel and I have seen them half a dozen times now combined, and they’re consistently great. They’re very high in energy, due both to the nature of the music and to Benson’s larger-than-life personality (not to mention stature—at 6’7”, Benson is quite possibly “the tallest Jew in Texas,” as Mojo Nixon affectionately refers to him). Tonight’s show was no exception. They started fast and rolled on for twenty-three tunes, running the gamut from Bob Wills (lots of Bob) to Commander Cody.

They started off with “Cherokee Maid,” which if I’m not mistaken has an almost identical tune to No Surf favorite Corb Lund’s “Little Foothills Heaven.” And just to confuse me further, they followed it up directly with “Miles and Miles of Texas,” which always seems to have the same melody as Ernest Tubb’s “Drivin’ Nails in My Coffin.” Maybe I’m crazy.

There was a lot more after that. Bob Wills was well represented: “Ida Red,” “San Antonio Rose,” “Faded Love,” “Roly Poly,” and more all owe their fame in large part to Wills’ versions. Asleep at the Wheel covers Wills’ songs with reverence and energy–his tunes have been their bread and butter for decades and not only have they recorded two tribute albums over the years, but Benson wrote a musical play, “A Ride With Bob” to commemorate Wills’ 100th birthday, in which he and all the band members perform.

With plenty of musical talent to go around, a lively repertoire, and no shortage of Texas attitude, Asleep at the Wheel shows are always a lot of fun. Photo by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad, No Surf Music.

Personal favorites included the always-awesome “Route 66 (Get Your Kicks)” and “Hesitation Blues,” an ancient song most recently revived on the band’s collaboration with Willie Nelson several years ago, the appropriately titled Willie and the Wheel. Oh, and “Hot Rod Lincoln,” a song for which Benson has developed an elaborate story-song presentation that plays well despite the fact that he’s been spouting the same “off-the-cuff” remarks during the tune for the better part of a decade, if not longer.

Standards like “Happy Trails” and “Don’t Fence Me In” rounded out a set list that made you feel like you were in West Texas. Or at least wish you were, even if you’ve never been. Western swing music puts you in a very specific geographic frame of mind, but as evidenced by the decidedly un-Texan Kent crowd, it’s got universal appeal as well.

Asleep at the Wheel—like The Gourds, The Boxmasters, Robbie Fulks, and others—is a band whose greatness is best appreciated live. They’re not the loudest, rowdiest, or hardest-rocking band in the world; they’re just a ton of fun every time you see them. Even if you’ve never heard a single one of their songs, you’d do well to check them out the next time they’re in town. At 150 dates a year, chances are they’ll be in your neck of the woods before long.

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For a taste of Asleep at the Wheel live, buy Live From Austin, Texas, Kings of the Texas Swing, or Live at Billy Bob's Texas on Amazon!
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