A day before its official start, this year's music portion of the South By Southwest festival got rolling on Tuesday (March 16) with an all-star country-rock and blues bash at La Zona Rosa celebrating Asleep at the Wheel leader and Texas music icon Ray Benson's 59th birthday.
The show, which also doubled as a fundraiser for the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAMM), featured Benson backed by present and past members of Asleep at the Wheel, including alumni keyboardist Floyd Domino. The night's many guest performers included Raul Malo on Patsy Cline's "I Fall to Pieces," Ray Price's "My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You" and the Everly Brothers "All I Have to Do is Dream," Radney Foster on Bob Wills' "Miles and Miles of Texas" and his own "Just Call Me Lonesome," and J.D. Souther for a three-song set that included "Route 66," "Journey Down the Nile" and the Eagles' "Heartache Tonight." Fort Worth songwriter Gary Nicholson joined the party for a rendition of "Flyin' & Fallin'," which he co-wrote with the late Stephen Bruton for the "Crazy Heart" soundtrack, the George Strait hit "Same Kind of Crazy as Me" and "Linda Lou."
Dale Watson and members of Band of Heathens and Reckless Kelly also paid homage to Benson, as did Carolyn Wonderland, the blues belter from Benson's Bismeaux Records label. The night took a Motown turn when Austin R&B singer Tim Curry and the Groove Line Horns joined Benson and company for Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" and the Temptations' "My Girl," as well as a show-closing rendition of Leadbelly's "Goodnight Irene." Benson also did just fine on his own, too, with performances of "House of Blue Lights," "Hesitation Blues" and other favorites from his canon of Texas swing.
Benson only left the stage once: to make room for a four-song outing by the Texas Tornados, reactivated after a decade away with a new album, "Esta Bueno!" and several planned SXSW performances. With new frontman Shawn Sahm, who was also celebrating his birthday, dedicating the set to his late father, Doug Sahm, and Freddy Fender, the Tornados started strong with "(Is Anybody Going to) San Antone," then showcased accordionist Flaco Jimenez on "Open Up Your Heart" and keyboardist Augie Meyers (who's awaiting a kidney transplant) on his signature "(Hey Baby) Que Paso?" before closing with a rip-roaring "She's About a Mover" led by the younger Sahm.
Early on Benson told the ebullient, invitation-only crowd that "this is the best birthday I've ever had." It was easy to understand why.