If you heard the traditional sounds of “Miles and Miles of Texas” drifting across Zilker Park from the Honda Stage a little past noon on Friday at the Austin City Limits Music Festival, you probably figured it was Asleep at the Wheel, who’ve been playing the fest’s first day since it started way back in 2002. Turns out only one Wheel-er was onstage, though.
Ray Benson’s western swing band played its regular fest gig last Friday, but because he made an album this year with local honky-tonk fixture Dale Watson, it made perfect sense for weekend two to feature Dale & Ray. The duo, backed by Watson’s first-rate Lone Stars band, mixed up songs from their album with a few Wheel and Lone Stars favorites in a crowd-pleasing 40-minute set for a few hundred early arrivals.
Part of their charm is cornball humor. As they introduced their theme song early on, Benson feigned confusion on which member of the duo he was. “Look on your guitar strap,” Watson advised, as each had their first names conveniently carved into the leather.
Trading the Lone Stars for Asleep at the Wheel was an apples-and-oranges comparison. The Wheel’s sound is more fluid and colorful; the Stars sound a little more direct and focused overall. The instrumentation is similar, though there’s no keyboards in the Lone Stars mix. Steel guitar has a place in both bands, but the spectacular runs of the Stars’ Don Pawlak stood out on several songs in this set, especially the George Jones tribute “Jonesin’ for Jones.”
Other numbers paid tribute to the late Merle Haggard (“Feelin’ Haggard,” from their new album) and Waylon Jennings (a set-closing “I Don’t Think Hank Done It This Way”). They also acknowledged their debts to Commander Cody and Austin guitar great Bill Kirchen on “Hot Rod Lincoln,” and to Willie Nelson on his tune “Write Your Own Songs.”
There’s little shade to be found anywhere at the Honda Stage, and by 1 p.m. the temperatures were already well into the mid-80s, so the short set was about right, allowing folks to get out of the sun for a bit before the next wave of music began on adjacent stages. Whether Watson will return for ACL Fest 2018 remains to be seen, but it’s pretty much a given that Benson and the Wheel will be back in the saddle for their Friday slot next year.
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