Friday 1 February 2019
St Mary's Square, Gateshead Quays, Gateshead NE8 2JR
Saturday 2 February 2019
56 Walton St, Oxford OX2 6AE
New Routes, the brand-new album by Asleep At the Wheel, marks both a new path forward and a nod to the freewheeling roots (get it?) of one of Texas’ most beloved bands. After a decade of collaborating on record with friends, including Willie Nelson on 2009’s Willie and the Wheel, and paying ongoing tribute to the groundbreaking music of Western Swing pioneer Bob Wills, the Wheel is marking 2018 with their first album of new material in a decade.
With a fresh lineup, a bracing blend of original songs and vibrant cover material and some unanticipated new musical tangents, Asleep At the Wheel demonstrates convincingly it’s more relevant, enjoyable and musically nimble than any time in its 45-year history.
From the sly “viper” jazz groove of the album’s opener, “Jack, I’m Mellow” to the languid original ballad, “Call It A Day Tonight,” to the Cajun romp of “Pass the Bottle Around” to the Americana-tinged acoustic cover of Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues” to the pedal-to-the-metal “Pencil Full of Lead” and “Seven Nights To Rock,”
New Routes propels the listener down myriad musical byways.
The 6’7” Benson has been the one constant in Asleep At the Wheel since the band’s founding in 1970 in Paw Paw, West Virginia. Since that time, more than 100 musicians have passed through the Wheel, but Benson remains the front man and the keeper of the vision, in the process racking up more than 25 albums, nine Grammy awards and literally millions of miles on the road.
“A lot of people come into the band good and leave the band great,” said Benson. “There’s not a better school than to get on the bus and play 100-150 shows a year of challenging music.
“It took me 60 years, but I’m doing what I’m meant to do—singing and playing and writing better than I ever have. A bandleader is just someone who gathers people around them to play the best music they can play. I just try to stay healthy and kick some ass every night onstage.”
Katie Shore follows in the long tradition of strong and talented female performers who have been an integral part of the band’s identity for decades. From founding female vocalist Chris O’Connell to Mary Ann Price, Rosie Flores, Cindy Cashdollar, Elizabeth McQueen and Emily Gimble, women vocalists and musicians have shaped the band’s legacy.
Shore agrees. “I always wanted to be in Asleep At the Wheel,” she said. “If you grew up in Fort Worth and played the fiddle, it was impossible not to know who the Wheel was. I feel part of a legacy, for sure.”
Shore and Benson also co-wrote one of the album’s standout tracks, “Call It A Day Tonight.” “It’s probably my favorite song on the record,” Shore said. “We shared some ideas and went our separate ways, but then we’d text back and forth. It was a lot of fun and it means a lot to me.”
“I’m 700 feet tall with a deep voice, so I always felt there had to be a female presence in there,” said Benson. “Also, when we started the band, we had the concept of a revue, like James Brown or Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland or Buck Owens—more than one singer, more than one featured person. The idea is to feature everyone in the band.”
“This was a chance to re-invent the Wheel,” said Benson. “These are creative folks who can add stuff. I’m just the bandleader, so if I don’t have contributions from everybody, then the Wheel doesn’t roll.”
New Routes, he said, “is a pure distillation of where the band is right now,” Benson declared. With the twin fiddles of Shore and Ludiker in place and steel player Eddie Rivers being able to double up on saxophone with bandmate Jay Reynolds, the eight band members “sound like twelve onstage,” said Benson.
“It gives me the palette that I’ve always wanted,” he added. “You gotta be able to play Bob Wills, you gotta be able to play R&B, Louis Jordan, the swing stuff, Count Basie stuff. And we also want to play real country music. So, I think we pulled it off on this album. It’s a band album.”