Wednesday, February 18, 2004

More than 115 combined years of musical experience reside in the consciousnesses of Asleep at the Wheel, The Holmes Brothers and Dr. John. This week, they each bring their unique selection of musical knowledge to the Washington area.

For Asleep at the Wheel (tonight at the State Theater in Falls Church), that knowledge covers the style known as Western swing. Country Music Hall of Famer Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys popularized this lively hybrid mix of country, jazz, and pop music 70 years ago.

“Bob Wills played anything he wanted and that his audience wanted. The only difference was the instrumentation,” says Asleep at the Wheel leader and co-founder Ray Benson. “And that’s the charm of it. If we didn’t have a steel guitar, fiddle and piano, we couldn’t be a Western swing band.”

The band plays everything from classic Bob Wills Western swing songs — such as “Faded Love” and “Take Me Back to Tulsa” — to R&B, pop, jazz and more.

“I’ll do a Charlie Rich kind of rock ‘n’ roll/R&B-like thing,” Mr. Benson says. “The cool thing is that it’s fiddle and steel guitar playing where other bands would have horns playing. And that’s Western swing.”

Mr. Benson and Asleep at the Wheel have been playing Western swing for 35 years. Over those years, more than 80 different band members have played in the eight- to 10-person ensemble. It’s Mr. Benson’s commitment to the music that keeps the band thriving.

“My first goal in 1969 was to perpetuate this music in its live form,” Mr. Benson recalls. “But the second goal was to bring it back to the sons and daughters of the generation before it. Actually, it’s skipped two generations, but I’ve got 20-year-olds in my band who are phenomenal players of this genre.”

Two of those players are fiddlers Jason Roberts and Haydn Vitera. Together, they skillfully recreate the twin fiddle sound for Bob Wills classics such as “San Antonio Rose.” Keeping it in the Bob Wills family, Mr. Roberts is a young cousin of great Texas Playboy fiddler Johnny Gimble. Mr. Vitera also has a fine singing voice, which can be heard in both English and Spanish on songs such as the Freddy Fender hit “Before the Next Teardrop Falls.”

One can also expect that this year’s show will include some selections from the group’s newest album, “Asleep at the Wheel Remembers the Alamo.”

“There’s nothing more Texas than the Alamo,” Mr. Benson says. “You’re surrounded by it here in Texas. The myth and the reality of the Alamo are staring you in the face. It’s fascinating. The music is incredible.”

A collection of songs related to the Alamo, the album includes such gems as “Remember the Alamo,” “Yellow Rose of Texas” and “Ballad of Davy Crockett.”

• • •

The Holmes Brothers, who will play a free concert on the Kennedy Center Millennium Stage on Sunday, have also made their mark by playing different genres in their own special way.

“I think that we have a unique sound,” bassist Sherman Holmes says. “And we do a variety of music. We use our own way of arranging. So I think that has made us stand out.”

Their style is a blend of blues, gospel and R&B that they started playing in New York in the ‘60s.

“Years ago when we played, we just played anything we knew,” Sherman says. “If we didn’t have enough songs, we might play a music lesson or a classical song. Anything we could think of, we threw in there. … So I suppose we’re influenced by it, by many genres.”

Their music is loose and rootsy but never sloppy, and their energy is infectious. After touring all over the world, guitarist Wendell Holmes, bassist Sherman and drummer Popsy Dixon have developed a special rapport.

“We know each other’s little nuances and stuff,” Sherman Holmes says. “We have the feel of playing together. And we hear each other, you know — we listen.”

• • •

Mac Rebennack, or Dr. John, as he’s known to fans, knows how to make it look easy. He’s been sliding around in that greasy gumbo of musical styles that makes up the New Orleans sound since the early ‘60s. He has played with everyone from the Rolling Stones and B.B. King to Carly Simon and Harry Connick Jr. His funky rolling piano is like no other. With any luck, his show at the Birchmere on Saturday will include his biggest hits, “Right Place, Wrong Time” and “Such a Night,” along with a little Mardi Gras music like “Iko, Iko” or “Zulu King,” and finally some Duke Ellington and Cole Porter.

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