June 06, 2020

`Asleep at the Wheel’ pleases crowd

Music review

As always, “Asleep at the Wheel” was tough to categorize in its appearance at the Maine Center for the Arts on Friday night.

The Texas-based band served up an energetic blend of western swing, blues, country, boogie-woogie and jazz. The audience of 1,066, happy to be in the air-conditioned confines of Hutchins Concert Hall, didn’t care what kind of music it was. They just liked it.

Singer Ray Benson set the tone early, when he explained, “We bring our own heat with us.”

A problem with the sound showed up early, as the 6-foot-7 frontman’s vocals were often lost in the musical mix. But that wasn’t the drawback it could have been, since the seven-member group’s focus was on skillful musicianship.

Benson was an amiable bandleader, but also contributed flowing runs on electric guitar. Pianist Tim Alexander, Hawaiian steel guitarist John Ely, sax player Michael Francis and fiddler Larry Franklin took their turns in the solo spotlight as well, while bassist Jon Mitchell and drummer David Sanger provided a driving beat for the group.

After a 10-minute late start, “Asleep at the Wheel” led off with a spirited version of “Route 66,” an appropriate tune for a band that plays upwards of 250 dates a year.

That set the pattern for the 90-minute concert that followed, with the group focusing mostly on versions of their favorite old songs.

They did play two songs from their most recent album, the hit title “You’re Keepin’ Me Up Nights” and the rollicking finale “Beat Me Daddy (Eight to the Bar).”

Benson also sang the touching ballad “Say It’s True,” from the upcoming TV movie “Wild Texas Wind,” to star Dolly Parton, Gary Busey and Asleep at the Wheel.

But mostly they stuck with the music that inspired them, including three Bob Wills tunes, “San Antonio Rose,” “Take Me Back to Tulsa” and “Stay a Little Longer.”

The group also did a blues block, made up of “By and By,” “Blues Stay Away From Me,” “Singing the Blues” and “Troubled Mind.”

The two encores were an eclectic mix, with the love song “You Don’t Know Me,” the uptempo “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie,” an a cappella version of “True Friends Are Hard To Find” and “Beat Me Daddy (Eight to the Bar).”

Benson also provided comic interludes with jokes, a hat trick and a juggling tribute to Elvis.

All in all, “Asleep at the Wheel” offered something for everyone.

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