Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson won’t officially turn 67 until Friday, but it’s tradition now for him to spend the Tuesday of South by Southwest throwing a big birthday bash. For the last three years, that party has been a fundraiser for the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, which was aiming to raise $150,000 in donations and auction proceeds at Tuesday evening’s event in the spacious backyard of advertising agency GSD&M.
Benson often has lured major draws to perform guest spots at the event, including George Strait, Willie Nelson, the Avett Brothers and Gary Clark Jr. over the past four years. Like SXSW as a whole this year, Ray’s 2018 party was less star-studded but still delivered a broad range of quality music. A closing set from the Preservation Hall Jazz Band — here in conjunction with their documentary “A Tuba to Cuba,” which screens Wednesday at the Paramount — followed short sets from more than a half-dozen guest performers sitting in with Benson and Asleep at the Wheel.
Texas roots-rocker Delbert McClinton was a clear crowd favorite, singing hits such as “Givin’ It Up for Your Love” and “Two More Bottles of Wine.” Louisiana swamp-rock pioneer Tony Joe White, seated and playing soulful guitar he sometimes pushed into deep fuzz blasts, played both of his signature tunes, “Polk Salad Annie” and “Rainy Night in Georgia.” Earlier, singer-songwriters Paul Thorn and Bonnie Bishop shared stage time with younger talents such as Nikki Lane and Jonathan Tyler.
Perhaps the biggest surprise came before the sun had gone down, when Austin-based National Public Radio correspondent John Burnett was introduced. Rather than coming onstage to interview someone, Burnett pulled out a harmonica and showed off some blistering blues licks.
In a Facebook Live interview with Austin360 near the end of the night, HAAM executive director reported that the organization was very near its $150,000 goal. “If we do that, Ray Benson will have personally raised over a half a million dollards for HAAM doing different things like his birthday bash,” she said. ‘And that’s so significant, because we provide health care access to so many Austin musicians, and we couldn’t do it without them.”
The Benson bash is the biggest, but not the only, HAAM event this week. “We have a lot of smaller events that we do during South By,” Collins noted. “We do a lot of very costly things for musicians, and it takes us over $2 million a year to operate HAAM. We have to raise that again every year.”