After declaring itself fully ready and compliant for Y2K--"I bought a new calendar," cracked front man Ray Benson--Asleep at the Wheel resumed swinging like it was 1939 at the Birchmere Wednesday night.
The septet's latest album, a tribute to western swing king Bob Wills and titled "Ride With Bob," helped inspire and enliven the performance despite the absence of Willie Nelson, Clint Black, Tracy Byrd and other members of the recording's all-star cast. In fact, the band had no trouble reviving several tunes from the album, including Waylon Jennings's "Bob Wills Is Still the King" and three Cindy Walker gems: "You're From Texas," "Going Away Party" and "Cherokee Maiden." Benson's trusty Telecaster frequently merged with Cindy Cashdollar's pedal steel guitar to create a lustrous front-line sound, while fiddler Jason Roberts contributed some of the evening's most spirited and evocative solos.
An engaging performer with a big baritone voice, Benson also accommodated fans who came to hear their favorite songs, whether they were associated with Wills's songbook or not. A round of requests generated full-tilt versions of "House of Blue Lights," "Choo Choo Ch-Boogie" and "Hot Rod Lincoln." And, for good measure, Benson tossed in a pair of unusually colorful arrangements, of "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" and "Red River Valley."
Rounding out the show were a couple of sharply contrasting songs, by turns romantic and rousing, that recalled the band's alliances with singer George Strait.