Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
sleep at the Wheel founder Ray Benson made it clear he was in the holiday spirit with his outrageous jacket and tie of white reindeer and green Christmas tree motifs on the red jacket, not to mention his white Santa beard. Let's say he was dressed for the occasion – the first ever Merry Texas Christmas, Y'all! T,livestreamed from the band's studio.
AATW, of course, has been the leading progenitor of Texas swing music for decades, and they did nothing to disappoint on this night. Benson shared the limelight with his usual large AATW cast, kicking it off with "Merry Texas Christmas Y'all, setting the stage for what was in store – Western swing, Christmas tunes and a bit more.
Fiddle player Katie Shore, who played a key role tonight, took lead vocals on the King of Texas Swing Bob Wills' "Santa's on His Way," a lively number.
Lest you be concerned that this was too merry of a show, Benson then gave his reading of Willie Nelson's "Pretty Paper," a sad sounding and themed holiday song about dismissing a down-and-outer on the street, accompanied by Shore on backing vocals.
Shore was a particular standout on vocals, giving a jazzy bent, for example to "You and Me and a Christmas Tree" as well as taking over the standard "Baby, It's Cold Outside," with Benson singing along and offering humorous commentary along the way. And she was quite capable on her own as well with her delivery of the slow-paced "I Guess We'll Call it a Day Tonight," which she penned with Benson.
Acknowledging that the band didn't have any Chanukah songs for the occasion, Benson (no dreidel songs were forthcoming, Benson said) offered "Hallelujah," the gem from Leonard Cohen, who was Jewish. Let's say that this isn't in the realm of cheery Chanukah songs, which tend to be kids oriented. Once again, it was Shore and Benson working separately and together to good effect in a fairly faithful reading – no Texas swing on that one.
Not everything was geared toward the holidays as the Wheel included their most excellent Texas swing standard "Miles and Miles of Texas" with fiddler Dennis Ludiker spicing the song before switching back to mandolin. "The applause is deafening," joked Benson, always filled with humor, even if he takes his music seriously.
AATW swung hard on the chestnut "Route 66" with various members having a stake in the song, including Anthony Locke on steel guitars and John Michael Whitby on keyboards. Shore once again showed her vocal prowess, taking a few stanzas.
While Benson and Shore took most of the spotlight, AATW has always been a group effort. Twin fiddle attacks from Shore and Ludiker stood out (especially on "Silent Night") with every musician doing their part to make for a fun, engaging 90 minutes of the best of Texas swing.
Taking a break before starting the second set, Benson gave a reading of an Austin-based version of "Twas the Night Before Christmas," name checking lots of Texas music stars from Janis Joplin to Jerry Jeff Walker. Shore soon followed in the kitchen preparing cookies. She seemed about as facile in the kitchen as she does on the fiddle. And she later showed her cocktail mixing skills in making a Santa Clausmopolitan. Let's just say that AATW knew how to keep it light.
And they kept the mix going in the second set, reprising "Christmas in Jail," an old video of which featuring Vince Gill and Goober Lindsay, was played during the break, and going cross-cultural with nicely done "Mele Kalikimaka," a Texas swing version of the Hawaiian song ("Merry Christmas" in Hawaiian) with Shore on lead vocals.
As they did in the first set, AATW threw in some standards as well including "San Antonio Rose," Faded Love" and "Take Me Back to Tulsa," all swing standards penned by Wills. They may have played these songs who knows how many thousands of times, but they still sure sound fresh. The joy was palpable – Christmas concert or not.
Benson maintained the Texas-centricity with an excellent rendition of the late Guy Clark's "Dublin Blues." He was spot on in capturing the emotion of the song.
Even with no live audience, Benson and company kept the good cheer coming whether traditional Texas swing ("San Antonio Rose"), covers or songs in the holiday spirit ("Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree," Texas swing style). Like many artists doing the streams, Benson said he hoped to be back on the road soon enough to really celebrate the band's golden anniversary. For now, warm performances like this will have to do.
"Look 2020 in the rearview mirror," intoned Benson before closing with a mid-tempo version of "Feliz Navidad."
Merry Texas Christmas Y'all
Santa's on His Way - Bob Wills song
Pretty Paper - Willie Nelson song
You and Me and a Christmas Tree - Elizabeth McQueen and Dave Sanger
Baby It's Cold Outside – duet with Benson and Shore
Miles and Miles of Texas
I Guess We'll Call It a Day Tonight
I'll Be Home for Christmas
Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen song
House of Blue Lights
Christmas in Jail
San Antonio Rose - Bob Willssong
Faded Love - Bob Wills song
Take Me Back to Tulsa - Bob Wills song
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas
Dublin Blues – Guy Clark song
Big River – Johnny Cash song
Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree