Asleep at the Wheel has carved a niche almost as big as Texas by playing western swing. Begun in 1969, Asleep at the Wheel has stayed true to leader Ray Benson’s vision of what country music should sound like. Based on a style pioneered by Bob Wills (“the Elvis Presley of western swing”), Asleep at the Wheel features tight ensemble playing, hot solos, and polished arrangements.
The band’s latest release showcases the band in its native environment, live in a Texas venue. It’s available both as a CD or DVD, so if you don’t want to use your eyes, you can opt for the CD. But for the full live effect, I strongly recommend the DVD. Unlike many live-performance DVDs, this disc has excellent production values, including fine editing, good camera angles, excellent sharpness, sumptuous color saturation, and lively cinematic pacing. In short, this is easily the best concert DVD I’ve seen.
Since its inception, Asleep at the Wheel has had 90 musicians in the band. The current roster includes Ray Benson on guitar and lead vocals, David Miller on bass and vocals, Jason Roberts on fiddle, electric guitar, and vocals, Hayden Vitera on fiddle and vocals, David Danger on drums, John Michael Whitby on piano and vocals, Jim Murphy on steel guitar and saxophone, and Cindy Cashdollar on steel guitar. While singling out individuals in this precision musical unit is similar to picking the best-tasting color for M&Ms, the twin fiddle work of Roberts and Vitera can’t help but make a strong impression. Vitera also does a sterling vocal job on the Vivan Keith and Ben Peters song “Before the Next Teardrop Falls,” which was originally a big hit for Freddy Fender.
Along with the 16 songs, the DVD includes two nifty special features; an interview with Ray Benson, and a gallery of still images. Unlike many concert DVDs which offer only stereo or Dolby-derived surround mixes, Live at Billy Bob’s Texas includes Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1 discrete surround mixes in addition to a two-channel Dolby Digital soundtrack. I prefer the DTS audio because of its added bass energy, but the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix also sounds great. Recording engineers Paul Whitehead and Bob Wright deserve a lot of credit for capturing Asleep at the Wheel’s vibrant live sound.
If you are an Asleep at the Wheel fan, Live at Billy Bob’s Texas is simply a must have. Even if you have only a moderate interest in western swing, this disc can turn you into a hardcore fan.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s March ’04 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.