Ray Benson – Poor David’s Pub (Dallas, TX)
Just about 24 hours after, and half a country away from, the glamour of the Grammys in Los Angeles, Asleep At The Wheel frontman Ray Benson shed his western swing image for a small-scale performance to an audience of 40-odd people. Benson shared a low-key program of American standards from Louis Armstrong to Hoagy Carmichael to Bob Dylan to Steve Allen, describing the show as “songs Asleep At The Wheel don’t do.”
Benson has done a dozen of these solo/duo shows in the past year or so, often in places that can’t afford, or are too small to accommodate, his eight-time Grammy-winning band. He played a six-string, plugged-in acoustic guitar and was accompanied on most songs by AATW fiddler Jason Roberts, who also did a short opening set.
With only the briefest comment about “graciously losing” three Grammy Awards the previous night, Benson opened solo with a jazzy version of “Route 66” and followed with Mississippi John Hurt’s bluesy “Angels Lay Him Away” and Dylan’s folky “It Ain’t Me, Babe” before calling Roberts to the stage. It could have been a highway motel lounge act except for Benson’s straightforward, sincere, strong-voiced performance.
While AATW has helped re-popularize western swing since 1968, Benson’s love of all kinds of old music is apparent. While the Wheel is best known for doing Bob Wills songs, the group’s repertoire has ranged from Billie Holiday to Eric Clapton to Commander Cody.
Other highlights in Benson’s consistently good, if never great, set on this night were Tony Bennett’s “When In Rome”, Cindy Walker’s oft-recorded “You Don’t Know Me”, Willie Nelson’s “The Test Of Time”, and the bluegrass instrumental “Blackberry Blossom”. Benson did a passably good approximation of Armstrong’s distinctive rasp on Armstrong’s “Give Me A Kiss To Dream On”.
Hr closed with Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You”, one of the best surprises from the recent Townes tribute album Poet. That CD track was a surprise because Benson’s poignant acoustic version was so different from the upbeat western swing we’re used to hearing from him. It’s nice, sometimes, to have your expectations changed.