Live Review: Asleep at the Wheel + Jack Browning, Cadogan Hall, London – 4th June 2024

Picture: Brian Hancill

If you play an Asleep at the Wheel song on Spotify via your smart TV the picture that fills the screen shows bandleader Ray Benson at the centre of a collage of nearly 50 musicians. These are the players who had already passed through the band from its formation in 1970 to the year when that image was put together. Since then, Ray’s hair has turned white, his beard is way longer, and the number of musical hotshots who can put Asleep at the Wheel on their CV is now more like 90. There’s a separate Wikipedia page just to list them all, but it’s nowhere near up to date.

All seven of the players who joined Benson on the Cadogan Hall stage are relative newcomers. Steel guitar wizard Flavio Pasquetto is the veteran and he joined as recently as 2019. But they brought the band’s sophisticated western swing arrangements to life as if they had played together all their lives.

Being able to turn the band on a musical penny is one of the defining qualities of Asleep at the Wheel. Another is Ray Benson’s golden baritone. He sounds warm, friendly and cheerful when he sings and at the age of 73 has lost none of his range or tone. He’s a superb guitar player too, adding subtle jazz voicings on a custom Collings semi-acoustic, made bigger to suit his 6ft 7ins frame and with a volume knob carefully placed so he can control swell notes with his little finger. He likes to crack groan-worthy jokes between songs too. For example, just before they played Louis Jordan’s ‘Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens’ he asked: “Why did the chicken cross Hollywood Boulevard? To see Gregory Peck!”

Picture: Brian Hancill

Kicking off with ‘Miles and Miles of Texas’, the Wheel played five Bob Wills tunes, two each by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and Louis Jordan, and just the one with Ray Benson in the credits (‘The Letter Than Johnny Walker Read’). Old favourites like ‘Route 66’, ‘San Antonio Rose’, ‘Faded Love’ and ‘Take Me Back To Tulsa’ sat alongside Willie’s ‘Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground’ and Charlie Ryan’s ‘Hot Rod Lincoln’.

Publicity for this tour – billed as the Wheel’s last-ever visit to the UK – named two new recruits to the band, Brennen Leigh (guitar, vocals) and Joshua Hedley (fiddle, vocals) as featured artists. Both have strong solo careers and both had two lead vocals during a set lasting one hour and 45 minutes. Brennan sang her own songs, ‘In Texas With A Band’ and ‘If Tommy Duncan’s Voice Was Booze’, a pair of tuneful two-steps that slotted snugly into the Wheel repertoire. Hedley’s first lead vocal came as a surprise – it was ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’ as sung by Jiminy Cricket in Walt Disney‘s ‘Pinocchio’, but it’s there on his first album and it didn’t sound out of place here. He followed that up with his own jaunty composition ‘Mr Jukebox’ which was the nickname he picked up as a singer and fiddle maestro who could play anything anyone requested in the honky tonk bars of Nashville.

Picture: Brian Hancill

Benson’s mid-song shout-outs naming the back-line musicians were hard to hear so I’d like to add my own tribute to Radoslav Lorkovic on piano and accordion, Lyon Graulty on sax and clarinet, Russ Patterson on drums and especially Michael Archer on stand-up bass, an inspirational player who never stopped smiling.

I got into Asleep at the Wheel 20 years ago when I bought “Ride With Bob”, the first of their three albums paying tribute to Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys. A year or so later I saw them at a London show. My far-from-reliable memory insists that they all squeezed on to the tiny stage at Dingwalls in Camden. I can find no record of this show online but I’m pretty sure it happened and I also recall that it ended in a frenzy of audience dancing. This brings me to the evening’s one minor negative. Cadogan Hall is a truly lovely venue with great acoustics for all kinds of music. But it’s fully seated, plushly carpeted and staffed by well-bred ladies with cut-glass accents. It’s more used to classical ensembles and soft jazz, and to my mind is not the best place to experience such joyously danceable music as western swing. “Last chance to dance,” Benson called out near the end, “No one’s gonna stop ya!” he promised. A few of us dared to get up and sway in place during the first encore, ‘Big Ball in Cowtown’. But it just didn’t feel right in that room.

Picture: Brian Hancill

Speaking of last chances, big man Ray has apparently expressed a wish to stop touring by 2026 and that’s why the UK dates were billed as the last-ever. But how did he close out the show? With a cheery: “See ya next time folks!” We can only hope.

Picture: Brian Hancill

The support artist, solo with acoustic guitar and cowboy hat, was Jack Browning. Not having looked him up, I presumed he was American until he spoke. He is in fact a London-born singer-songwriter with a strong country flavour and a good voice. I was most impressed by ‘Blue Eyed Son’, an atmospheric blues which sounds even better on record.

About Brian Hancill 5 Articles
Semi-retired sub-editor who worked at the Mirror for many years, followed by a stint at The Spectator. Music obsessive since I heard the Beatles aged seven in 1963. Turned on to country and Americana around the turn of the millennium by Bob Harris's Radio 2 shows.
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Nice well balanced review Brian. I was at Bristol last week to see Ray and the band capture the audience, they were great. First saw AATW in a small venue in Atlanta Ga. in blimey, 1982 or so . Ray might have even used some of the same jokes! Sure hope they continue to play live.

Pete Feldon

I was there on the same day and Brian’s description is exactly how I experienced the gig. Good to have the information about the performers. As Brian says Ray’s voice is in good nick. At the end of one song he held on to a very low note, and you could almost feel the building shake!