In his characteristically droll manner. Ray Benson told a crowd at Austin's Rattle Inn on Tuesday night that "this has become a yearly thing, having a birthday."
But Benson has, in fact, turned his yearly celebration into one of the opening -- and overall -- highlights of the South By Southwest Music + Media Conference.
A fundraiser for the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM), Benson's birthday parties are all-star affairs, drawing all sorts of famous friends for a night full of memorable and off-the-cuff performances. And this year's show, coming three days before the Asleep At the Wheel leader turns 61, held true to form, although with some highlights that surprised even the party's regulars.
Suffice to say that never before has a Hawaiian ukulele player captivated the audience with a solo rendition of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" - as Jake Shimabukuro did on Tuesday. The fans were so enraptured they were hushing the bartenders as they shuffled glasses beneath the counter, and were singing along softly, so as not to interfere with Shimabukuro's reverie. And this was after Shimabukuro, attending his first South By Southwest, had already dazzled the crowd by joining Benson and the Wheel for a little Django Reinhardt and the Beatles' "While My Guitar Gentley Weeps."
Those were among the three-hour show's many highlights, of course. Benson and his band got things off to a swingin' Texas start with forebear Bob Wills' "Miles and Miles of Texas," Bobby Troup's "Route 66" and Hank Thompson's "Six Pack to Go" before the procession of guests began. Ian Moore traded guitar licks with Benson during "Blue Sky," while Randy Rogers wished Benson a "happy 40th anniversary of your 21st birthday." Carolyn Wonderland blew the roof off the club -- which Benson co-owns -- during "Judgement Day Blues," while the Mother Truckers (the husband-wife team of Teal and Josh Collins) delivered a swaggering version of the Rolling Stones' "Tumblin' Dice."
Austin favorite Kat Edmonson shined on the early 20th century standard "After You've Gone" and previewed her new album "Way Down Low," due out April 10, with the track "Lucky." Nakia," one of last season's contestants on "The Voice," led the group through Freddy Fender's "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" and Otis Redding's "(Sittin' On) The Dock of the Bay," and fellow Texas Swing practioner Bo Porter rolled through "In the Sweet Bye and Bye" and "Milk Cow Blues" before the evening ended with, appropriately enough, Roy Rogers' "Happy Trails."
There will certainly be shows at South By Southwest that have more buzz and cool cache. But the masses in Austin this week will be hard-pressed to find anything as genuine, heartfelt and charming as this simple but very musical birthday bash.