If it was Tuesday night at South By Southwest it was time for Ray Benson to have a birthday party — something the Texas music icon and Asleep at the Wheel leader has been doing for the past 19 years.
It was, as usual, a good time for a good cause — raising money for the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM), a non-profit that’s served Benson, who turns 68 on March 16, in the past and now helps some 2,700 musicians with all manner of mental health care needs. The hook for the fundraiser, of course, was an all-star lineup joining Asleep at the Wheel — this year even more diverse than usual — and celebrating Benson. “This is my birthday gift to myself,” he told Billboard early in the evening. “They ask me, ‘What do you want to do for your birthday?’ and I want to play with a bunch of other musicians.”
That he did, over the course of a three-hour and 40-minute show that provided a stirring, Texas-flavored bridge between the end of SXSW’s Interactive conference and the beginning of the Music segment. Katie Pruitt finished her opening set with the “don’t be a d*** to each other” (a good mantra for SXSW), while Robert Ellis, in full Texas Piano Man white tails and top hat, told the crowd behind the GSD&M office building that, “I’m glad I got you fresh. This is just the beginning. You have a whole f***in’ week of this!”
Part of the magic of Ray Benson’s Birthday Bash — which teamed this year with BMI’s Howdy Texas party to celebrate the announcement of its new office in Austin — is it comes off as a truncation of that week in one night. Asleep at the Wheel was joined by 10 guests and the show veered from its usual Americana and Country lineup to include some multi-platinum rockers — Ed Roland from Collective Soul and Foo Fighters’ Chris Shiflett. Roland, in fact, provided some of the nights’ high points, starting with a guitar-and-violin rendition of “World That I Know” with Brandon Anthony from the Texas governor’s office, then lighting up the night with “Shine,” accompanied by Asleep at the Wheel and his son Lindsey Chris Roland. He finished with a fiddle-laced version of “December,” leading Austin media personality and concert emcee Andy Langer to dub Benson and company “the most versatile band in show business.”
Shiflett, of course, is making country music on his own and offered a cover of Ernest Tubb’s “Walking the Floor,” from which he took his podcast title, and an extended, jammy take on his new song “This Old World.” Country hitmaker Randy Houser offered a mini-set of his singles “What Whiskey Does” and “No Stone Unturned” along with the soulful and unreleased “No Good Place to Cry,” while his rendition of “Good Hearted Woman” dedicated to Willie Nelson had concertgoers two stepping in front of the stage.
Robert Earl Keen received a hero’s welcome as he joined Asleep at the Wheel for “If I Were King” and Nelson’s “The Party’s Over,” and Dale Watson, sporting a black hat for the occasion, dueted with Benson on their Merle Haggard tribute “Feeling Haggard” and I Lie When I Drink.” Asleep at the Wheel, meanwhile, bookened the night with renditions of “Route 66,” songs from its 2018 album New Routes, “Seven Nights to Rock” and “Happy Trails.” On the younger tip, “Blaze” star Ben Dickey won friends with a cover of Bob Wills’ “Blues For Dixie” and the Dylanesque waltz “Way Out in the Cotton” from his new album A Glimmer on the Outskirts, while Jamie Lin Wilson charmed with “Oklahoma Stars,” Waylon Payne delivered a touching rendition of Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and Wade Bowen tipped his hat to Guy Clark with “Dublin Blues.”
Also on the site – Walker Lukens hosted a Song Confessional studio, where for a donation patrons could tell their stories and have them turned into songs by a variety of writers.
About the only thing that went awry during the night was that Benson’s birthday cake was ordered for the wrong day, forcing organizers to deploy a quick substitute — which he claimed had “too many candles.” The good news, however, is that they’ll be able to make good at the next bash a year from now.