"No doubt the best weather ever in the last 13 years," Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson remarked early into the legendary Austin band’s 12:15 p.m. set on the Honda Stage at ACL Fest. "The most beautiful day we’ve ever seen."
Benson and his band should know, as they’ve played the first day of every single one of these things, all the way back to 2002. The band is a bit different now: new members Katie Holmes (on fiddle) and Emily Gimble (on keyboards) took on feature vocal roles up front with guitarist Benson. But in many ways, the more the Wheel changes, the more it stays the same.
Rolling through old favorites such as "Miles and Miles of Texas," "Route 66," "San Antonio Rose" and "Faded Love," the band reaffirmed its connection to the roots of Western swing and Bob Wills (underlined when they trotted out the obligatory "Bob Wills Is Still the King"). But Holmes and Gimble brought soulful new vocal power, reminding that the Wheel’s evolution will continue, probably even after Benson’s not around. Indeed, what he’s doing is essentially carrying forward the legacy that stretches back to the Playboys’ 1930s and ’40s heyday.
There’s still plenty of time for Benson to explore new ground too, as he did when he played the Waylon Jennings song "It Ain’t You" from the solo album Benson issued earlier this year. And they previewed a couple tunes from an all-star Wheel record due out next year. But it’s the long legacy that remains most important, as was clear on an extended, radiant rendition of "Red River Valley" near the end of the set. If we take the Wheel for granted because they seem like they’re always around, well, that’s the beauty of them: Indeed, they always have been, and they always will be.