Dale Watson (guitar, left) and Ray Benson (guitar, right) at City Winery (Photo: Ebet Roberts)
There have been numerous country music star duos over the years—Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, and Moe Bandy and Joe Stampley, both in the late 1970s and early '80s, quickly come to mind. But Dale Watson and Ray Benson, currently out touring in support of their terrific new Dale & Ray album, are easily the strongest pure county music pairing at least since Travis Tritt and Marty Stuart had their heyday some 25 years ago.
Their stop Monday night at City Winery more than doubled the solo value of two of the best real country artists in the business, what with a dynamite backup band made up of Watson's regulars and Benson's venerable Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel's fiddler-mandolinist Dennis Ludiker.
After opening strong with the new album's "I Wish You Knew," Watson and Benson performed the rest of it in its entirety, high points including the Buck Owens tribute "Cryin' to Cryin' Time Again," the Merle Haggard tribute "Feelin' Haggard" and "Forget About Tomorrow Today"--even the song titles a throwback to the classic "country-and-western" sound that Benson so rightly called it. Benson also threw in some of the great Bob Wills swing tunes he replicates with Asleep at the Wheel ("Take Me Back to Tulsa," "Big Ball's in Cowtown"), while Watson delivered key songs in his catalog like "I Lie When I Drink" and "Truckin' Man."
The two also cut up plenty—also not uncommon among country duos, or trios, as in the case of Jack S**t (starring Jackson Browne guitarist Val McCallum and Elvis Costello's rhythm section of drummer Pete Thomas and bassist Davey Faragher). In fact, they were very much like that popular Los Angeles country-and-western trio in having concocted a ridiculously risqué backstory to go with their country Smothers Brothers-like shtick.
Funniest bits came during Dale & Ray's lead track "The Ballad of Dale and Ray," in which Watson imitated Haggard, Benson did Johnny Cash, and both lamented how "today's country music don't move us that way." When they got to the part about how "we're all selling something while we're making hay" (in Willie Nelson's case, "reefer"; in George Strait's, "booze"), Benson held up a bottle of his "Asleep at the Wheel Roadhouse Barbecue Sauce" and then pitched "Dale and Ray" t-shirts, half of which have Watson's line "I like to drink beer" emblazoned on the back, the other half having Benson's "I like to smoke pot."
"Mine won't get you arrested!" said Watson, who got in on the action by demonstrating the proper use of a "Dale and Ray" koozie, and also explaining that the duo's album title came from paying $20,000 to consultants. "I wanted 'Ray & Dale,'" said Benson, "but they were professionals."
Watson also yelled out "Senior!" after the song's "We like Hank Williams" line, but the show, thanks to his exceedingly tight Lone Stars band (Don Pawlak on pedal steel, drummer Mike Bernal and upright bassist Chris Crepps) and Ludiker, were way closer to Junior in sound and fun. The set ended with the Asleep at the Wheel staple "Hot Rod Lincoln," Benson and Watson twinning guitars and Ludiker on mandolin. The encore was particularly appropriate: Waylon Jennings' "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way."
Watson and Benson, by the way, will return to New York o July 14 to perform at Lincoln Center's Midsummer Night's Swing.