Ray Price / Willie Nelson / Ray Price – Backyard (Austin, TX)
When they brought his birthday cake onstage, Asleep At The Wheel bandleader Ray Benson couldn’t resist the chance to be disrespectful to his elders. “I’m the youngest guy out here!” he crowed, and, at age 56, he wasn’t kidding.
Benson and the rest of the Wheel were serving as the backing band for Ray Price, Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, who were teaming up for an unprecedented recording project and tour, both dubbed Last Of The Breed (George Jones and Jerry Lee Lewis notwithstanding, I guess).
On the opening night of a two-night stand at the Backyard in Austin (which coincided with, but was not a part of, South By Southwest), Price introduced himself by saying, “I’m 81 years old and I am not the father of Anna Nicole’s baby!” Between them, the three headliners have amassed 224 years of honky-tonk living. That’s a lot of whiskey over the dam.
The sellout crowd wasn’t expecting anything revelatory of the three veterans. If nothing else, Nelson, Price and Haggard have been models of consistency — though not predictability — across their long careers.
Price, the elder statesman of the group, took the stage first in an impeccably tailored coif and outfit, with his own nine-piece band neatly turned out behind him.
Reprising his history as the author of the trend-setting “Ray Price shuffle” and as a countrypolitan balladeer, Price rolled out “Please Release Me”, “City Lights”, “For The Good Times” and, of course, the Willie-penned “Crazy Arms” with smooth aplomb, his velvety baritone seemingly unencumbered by his years. Standing apparently lost in thought as the band swirled around him until it came time to sing the next verse or chorus, Price, who first played Austin in 1948, exuded an air of world-weary wisdom and effortless control.
Haggard, typically inscrutable behind dark glasses under a black fedora, strolled onstage after a couple of introductory Asleep At The Wheel numbers. Wielding a fiddle (making a total of three onstage), Haggard loosened up with Bob Wills’ “Take Me Back To Tulsa” and a playful little jump/swing original he called “I Had A Little Gal”. “That’s The Way Love Goes”, “Silver Wings”, “Big City” and “Sing Me Back Home” all preceded what Haggard called an obligatory performance (“just react accordingly”) of “Okie From Muskogee”.
Nelson strode out midway through the song, lending his leathery tenor to Haggard’s paean to strait-laced folks who wouldn’t smoke a joint if God or even Willie himself handed them one. It was a staged bit, but a wonderfully ironic and good-humored one at that particular juncture.
Haggard and Nelson also swapped vocals on “Pancho & Lefty”, “Reasons To Quit”, “Ramblin’ Fever” and a couple of other numbers before Price ambled back out to join the duo on Harlan Howard’s “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down”. “Please Don’t Leave Me Anymore” set Price’s buttery voice against Nelson’s weathered nasal tone, but it was Price’s give-and-take vocal with his former bassist (Nelson picked up a desperately-needed gig when he joined Price’s Cherokee Cowboys in 1961) on Nelson’s “Night Life” and “Crazy” that genuinely set the crowd off.
By the time Nelson and Benson signed off with “On The Road Again”, the show was not quite 90 minutes old, which barely qualifies as a long soundcheck by Nelsonian standards. So it was no surprise to see him take the stage once more to launch into another 30 minutes of material with Asleep At The Wheel. It was invigorating to hear Nelson singing standards and his own tunes against the Wheel’s swinging backdrops when his own Family Band’s arrangements have grown so familiar if not sometimes ossified.
One of Nelson’s encore performances was a song he wrote last year in the wake of carpal tunnel surgery titled “I’m Not Superman”. Maybe not, but given the longevity and continued vitality of his ownself, Price and Haggard, you gotta sorta wonder.