Asleep At The Wheel: The Wheel

THIS IS Asleep At the Wheel’s fifth album in seven odd years. It’s the one, so they hope, to transform them from a cult country band with a sizeable rock following to an across-the-boards, All Star attraction.

Unfortunately they’ll have to keep hoping, cos The Wheel won’t satisfy the requirements.

It’s a generally excellent album, though. It starts how it means to continue by tapping the rich vein of traditional-Texas bar room blooze. From whiskey soaked weepies and heart warming gospel to that peculiar local concoction of hillbilly rhythms cut with two fingers of Big Band Brass and called Western Swing. Asleep At The Wheel prove themselves masters in their field.

But as far as appealing to non-country fans is concerned you can keep The Wheel on ice. This is an album for the “Men’s Room” only, where it will be greeted with open arms, I’m sure.

If you have a secret yearning for brass-rubbed Americana – the grittier the better, then The Wheel’s for you. If you have a sneaking respect for fine musicianship and good harmony singing, then give: The Wheel a spin.

Asleep At the Wheel are an eleven piece band who operate on cruise control, but are very much awake. Taking the turns with some slick swing jazz instrumentals the way Western Swing pioneer Bob Wills might have played them in the Thirties, hanging in the middle lane with some class country balladry courtesy of sweet Ms Chris O’Connell, and speeding down the outside with some light-hearted rib-ticklers from the voice and pen of band leader Ray Benson. Rhythm guitarist Leroy Preston provides the best the tracks with a fine Sun Synthesis rocka-billy ‘My Baby Thinks She’s A Train’ and the Gospel toned ‘Somebody Stole His Body’ while son-of-a-Lousiana-legend Link Davis Jnr. pulls out his accordian for those Cajun rhythms too.

With eleven star pickers in the band Asleep At The Wheel prove themselves fine arrangers as well. Slick ensemble work stretches out into masterful soloing with lead guitarist Ray Benson, pedal steel man Lucky Oceans and pianist Floyd Domino calling the shots. Add those massed fiddles and swingtime horns and there’s no style of roadside rock that Asleep At The Wheel can’t play into the ground.

Yet, sadly, such skill and panache is still not enough to endear this good-natured band to FM fanatics. In fact, Asleep At The Wheel’s earlier albums like Texas Gold and Wheelin’ And Dealin’ stood a better chance than this latest one. That’s because, with The Wheel, this bunch of shitkickers seem to have lost that sense of wry, tongue-in-cheek humour that coloured even their hickest country material.

The Wheel suffers because it is just too serious and introspective for comfort, Everybody likes to share a drink with an old-timer every once in a while, but one who doesn’t laugh much can get mighty tedious.

© Chas de WhalleySounds, 7 May 1977

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