Asleep At The Wheel just awesome

Anne Herman

Asleep At The Wheel was anything but Saturday night at Atwood Concert Hall. With nine Grammys under the Austin group's belt, these country swing musicians put the yee-haw into a night of Texas-style big-band music.

This was Texas swing with jazz, blues and honky-tonk going along with its cowboy twang. Co-founded by Ray Benson -- on guitar and vocals Saturday night -- the group's sound evolved from the music of Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys who owned the Texas swing style from the 1930s to the 1960s.

The band relied on old western swing standards with Asleep's updated twist, like "Don't Fence Me In," "Happy Trails To You," and Wills' favorites "Take Me Back To Tulsa" and "Miles and Miles of Texas" for the program.

You know a band's good when you have to restrain yourself from dancing in the aisles to a tune that's 65 years old. And you also have to give the band chops for playing non-stop for almost two hours and looking like they could go another two.

Benson's baritone was like silk and took center stage most of the evening. But Jason Roberts' higher vocals complemented him wonderfully. Add in singer Elizabeth McQueen's sweetly rough sounds and you had a vocal section that melted your heart and set your feet tapping.

Benson got "Route 66" off to a jumpin' start with a growling melody that challenged the other musicians "to get your kicks," which they did in fine form. In Wills' "Faded Love," Roberts and McQueen leaned back to howl out this country love song while Benson came in soft and low behind them.

The group dipped into contemporary mixtures of boogie, jazz and the blues to fashion sounds that definitely had more than Texas in their chords and notes. "Sweet Jennie Lee," for example, is on the band's latest album featuring Willie Nelson. Fiddler and singer Jason Roberts wrote "Am I Right Or Amarillo," and the band recorded Wills' "A Big Ball's In Cowtown" with George Strait.

If the singing was sweet as Texas water, the instrumental music was just as clean. And as much as I liked Benson, McQueen and Roberts' singing, Eddie Rivers on steel guitar and John Michael Whitby on piano stole a piece of my heart. Rivers' steel guitar was classic western swing music. Its whining twang and slithering notes put the Texas in songs like "I Don't Care If The Sun Don't Shine" and "Sweet Jennie Lee." Equally, Whitby put the boogie in "Good Bye Lisa Jane" and the aptly named "Bump Bounce Boogie," which had the group leaping like fools.

Here's the secret to Asleep At The Wheel's success all these years. You don't have to be a ten-gallon hat-wearing Texan to swing with the group. You can be an Alaskan cowboy wanna-be and still get a kick in the pants from this wildly popular band.

Anne Herman holds a master's degree in dance and has been a consultant for the National Endowment for the Arts.

Blog: Art Snob
Daily News correspondent