RICHARDSON The fist bump said it all.
Bringing a particularly deft rendition of the late, great Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty to a close, Willie Nelson extended his right arm from behind the battered and ever-present Trigger. Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson, towering high and singing low, reached out to give his friend of many decades a brief tap.
That simple, fleeting gesture underlined the synergy at work on the Eisemann Center’s Hill Performance Hall stage Saturday night, as Nelson and Asleep at the Wheel joined forces for a rare joint appearance.
The two musical entities recorded together in 2009, bringing a Jerry Wexler vision to fruition after 40 years of trying, but haven’t toured widely behind the project (and little of it was tackled Saturday).
The 1,500-capacity space sold out in eight hours, and the enthused crowd was treated to a 90-minute Texan tour de force that occasionally wobbled under the weight of (perhaps unfair) expectations, but delivered when it mattered most.
Asleep at the Wheel, which vacillated between nine and 10 total members on stage (including the newest addition, fiddler/vocalist Katie Holmes, taking over for Elizabeth McQueen), served as de facto opener, warming up the room with swinging staples like Miles and Miles of Texas, Faded Love and San Antonio Rose.
Loose, engaging and brimming with Lone Star pride (dig that state-shaped splash cymbal), Asleep at the Wheel was wrapping up its rendition of The House of Blue Lights, when Nelson materialized, along with his son, Lukas, and sauntered to center stage.
The center of the room’s gravity shifted noticeably at that point, away from Benson’s breezy charm, and toward the bearded man striking strings and diving into Whiskey River.
The set list also took on the dimensions of a typical Nelson performance, spinning from Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away to Crazy to Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain to Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys.
Asleep at the Wheel was relegated to the role of backing band, and while the pivot was handled seamlessly (AATW is nothing if not a cluch of consummate pros), it felt a little unfair for Nelson to barge in and seemingly take over.
As the evening progressed, however, the balance was restored, as Nelson and Benson swapped verses on a beautiful reading of It Ain’t You (from Benson’s just-released solo LP, A Little Piece).
And while it was a little strange to see Nelson picking through his hits without Mickey Raphael beside him or Paul English behind him, Asleep at the Wheel provided some vivid textures, adding saxophone and clarinet flourishes, along with a pair of fiddles, that made the familiar feel altogether fresh.
If Asleep at the Wheel felt at all perturbed about their old friend pulling focus, it didn’t show, and perhaps, Benson and his bandmates know, sometimes, even they can be ever so slightly outshined.
But as evidenced by that touching tap, Nelson knows greatness when he hears it.