'A Ride With Bob,' and George
Monday, September 25, 2006
Western swing was the thing at the Kennedy Center when the musical biography "A Ride With Bob" coasted in for the weekend, attracting a crowd that on opening night included President and Laura Bush.
Performed by the Texas band Asleep at the Wheel, and previously seen in Austin, Fort Worth and other locales, "A Ride With Bob" is a heartfelt concert-with-plot that doffs a big cowboy hat to the Western swing icon Bob Wills.
A fiddler, tunesmith and bandleader whose innovative tinkering with country and jazz left a mark on American popular music, Wills came to fame during the 1930s with his groups the Light Crust Doughboys and later the Texas Playboys. "A Ride With Bob" relates this saga in brief scenes anchored to songs Wills wrote or performed -- classics like "New San Antonio Rose," the fiddle-tune-turned-big-band-sensation that was the Playboys' first national hit.
"A Ride With Bob" derives a little poignancy from a framing device that's based on a real event. Back in the 1970s, it seems, a planned tete-a-tete between Wills and Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson fell through when Wills had a stroke and lost the ability to speak. (He died in 1975.) In "A Ride With Bob," the meeting takes place after all: Wills's spirit returns from the Great Beyond to recount his life story while Benson travels by bus to Tulsa.
Toting his guitar, his long gray ponytail snaking out from under his cowboy hat, the deep-voiced Benson played himself in laid-back, good-humored fashion. Actor Marco Perella was livelier as the ghost of Wills, who pepped up his reminiscences with the occasional wisecrack and a Cuban cigar clenched between his teeth ("Ain't no embargoes in heaven!").
As these two performers sat to the right on a simulacrum of a tour bus, the rest of the cast enacted the Wills story on a set that, with its jumble of antiquated gasoline signs and patch of blue sky, evoked the American highways of yesteryear (Christopher McCollum is the show's set designer).
The role of the confident, flirtatious young Wills was deftly filled by Asleep at the Wheel fiddler Jason Roberts, who segued effortlessly from spoken scenes to passages of virtuoso fiddling. Among the supporting actors, Rick Perkins provided valuable light relief as a medicine-show charlatan, a swishy Hollywood impresario and other personalities.
The renditions of "Take Me Back to Tulsa," "Milk Cow Blues," "Faded Love" and other numbers were crisp and rousing, and there was even a gyrating cameo for an Elvis impersonator (Elvis was one of many legendary performers who performed "New San Antonio Rose"). The show's highlights also included an impressive appearance by the Quebe Sisters -- ages 16, 19 and 20 -- who fiddle and sing breathtaking three-part harmony.
With its simplistic construction and unhurried pace, "A Ride With Bob," written by Benson, Anne Rapp and CK McFarland, and directed by McFarland, risks boring anyone who's not a Western swing enthusiast.
But on Friday night, the number of enthusiastic shouts of "Yeehaw!" by gleeful audience members (not Mrs. Bush, judging by the sound) suggested that, for many, Bob Wills is still alive and swinging.