Ray Benson has just one wish for his birthday each year; “I’d like to play music with my friends.”
And that’s just what the Asleep At The Wheel founder and Texas music icon did on Tuesday night, celebrating his 66th birthday two days early in what’s become a South By Southwest tradition to raise money for Health Alliance for Austin Musicians (HAAM). Benson and his friends — an august troupe that included Willie Nelson, the Avett Brothers, Charlie Sexton and Shannon McNally, Carolyn Wonderland, Marcia Ball and more — delivered with a 31-song marathon show behind the GSD&M headquarters in downtown Austin, tearing through the great America country and western songbook with righteous, if occasionally ragged, exuberance.
And rest assured the mistakes hardly mattered. “This ain’t a show, it’s a party,” Benson — who received a birthday cake shaped like an armadillo brandishing a lariat during the encore — said at one point.
The annual celebrations have been good for HAAM which, organizers announced before the show, has contributed $4.9 million towards health care for more than 4,400 musicians since 2005. Tuesday’s goal was another $66,000 through donations and a silent auction.
The show, meanwhile, was packed with one highlight after another. Asleep At The Wheel started off with Texas swing favorites such as “Cherokee Maiden,” “Miles and Miles of Texas” and a birthday-appropriate “Route 66.” The parade of guests began with Brennan Leigh, who nailed her own “Analog Anthem” and Lefty Frizzell’s “I Love You a Thousand Ways,” while Randy Rogers delivered Merle Haggard’s “Misery and Gin,” “Workin’ Man Blues” and a gorgeous rendition of Guy Clark’s “Dublin Blues.” Sexton and McNally scored with Waylon Jennings’ “Pretend I Never Happened,” and Wonderland, Ball and Shelley King teamed with Asleep At The Wheel for a searing take on Blind Willie Johnson’s “It’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine” and a honky tonk treatment of Ike & Tina Turner’s “A Fool In Love.” Sunny Sweeney helped wrap the first set with a playful romp through Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” with Sexton back to add harmonica.
The Avetts reprised their appearance at Benson’s party last year by adding instrumental and vocal luster with “The Girl I Left Behind,” “The Prettiest Thing,” Bob Wills’ “Take Me Back To Tulsa” and Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” then swung into Nelson’s “Stay A Little Longer,” which brought Benson’s fellow Lone Star hero on stage at the end.
Nelson, who had to postpone some shows earlier this year due to health reasons but has been back on tour since early March, informed the crowd, in song, that he’s “still not dead again today” with strong vocals and nimble playing on Trigger, his well-worn acoustic guitar, and clearly enjoyed having the full forces of Asleep At The Wheel and the Avetts behind him. His favorites flowed one into the other, “Whiskey River” into “Still Is Still Moving To Me” and so on, with particularly powerful performances of “Nightlife,” “Always On My Mind” and “Pancho and Lefty.”
An extended “On The Road Again” took the night home in style, and while it can be argued that Nelson’s appearance stole the spotlight from the birthday boy, it was clear Benson could care less. “This is a present for me. It really is,” he announced. And Tuesday’s audience certainly felt the same way.