Review: Turnpike Troubadours Play Their First Concert in Three Years - Rolling Stone
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Turnpike Troubadours Reunited to Play Their First Show in 3 Years — Grown Men Cried

Evan Felker and company’s joyous return to the stage at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa puts a period on an unexpected hiatus

Evan Felker, Turnpike TroubadoursEvan Felker, Turnpike Troubadours

Evan Felker reunited with Turnpike Troubadours to play their first concert in three years.

Josh Crutchmer

With house lights turned all the way down, and a steady fog machine masking the glow of several hundred smartphones, Evan Felker stepped onto the Cain’s Ballroom stage in Tulsa.

He did a quick double-take when his eyes caught the 1,700 fans fortunate enough to have made it inside on Friday night, who roared at the collective realization that the six silhouettes on stage really were the Turnpike Troubadours.

Whether by design or blind luck, the lights stayed off while the band went through nearly two minutes of tuning and straightening microphone stands, allowing Cain’s to reach a fervor that was unique even by the venerable dance hall’s standards. When the spotlight finally popped on Felker, he launched straight into “Every Girl,” a favorite concert-opener of the band.

Turnpike were Turnpike once more.

“Good to see everybody again!” Felker shouted after the first song, officially putting to rest a hiatus that started in May 2019 and a six-month comeback story that began with an exclusive Rolling Stone interview and featured repeated instances of fans and scalper bots alike crashing ticket-sale websites as concerts were announced.

What followed was a classic Turnpike set — 19 stomping roots numbers and a one-song encore — with minimal stage talk to allow the screams of approval from the audience more time to echo off the photos of Bob Wills and Hank Williams that line the outer walls of Cain’s.

“I had chills when Evan appeared, and honestly I am not sure I can say that’s happened very often,” venue general manager Chad Rodgers leaned over to tell Rolling Stone mid-set.

Turnpike was exceptionally tight throughout the 90-minute show. Ryan Engleman’s lead guitar and Kyle Nix’s fiddle alternated places at the front of the mix while Hank Early’s accordion and pedal steel balanced the bass of R.C. Edwards to uphold Turnpike’s standard swampy swing sound. Gabe Pearson never even considered missing a beat on the drums.

Turnpike Troubadours

Josh Crutchmer

 

Of course, the eyes were on Felker, basking in sobriety since early in Turnpike’s break and happily re-married to his wife, Staci, with a year-old daughter at home and another child expected around September. The lead singer embraced the scrutiny Friday, moving charismatically through the show with his twangy, aw-shucks vocals turned up throughout.

“It’s good to be back in Oklahoma, y’all,” Felker said early on. “For any reason at all, but especially this one.”

Each member of Turnpike is a person of few words, preferring instead the extra few minutes of music at each show, but Felker is most correctly cast as “shy,” and he knows it. At his best, he’s a deliberate lead singer, his interactions with the crowd always specific. He shouted out his friend John Fullbright when he kicked off “Pay No Rent” and caused a mini-frenzy when he took a harmonica solo at the end of “The Housefire.” It was the fiddle intro to Turnpike’s interpretation of John Hartford’s “Long Hot Summer Days,” however, that drew the loudest response.

During a moment of relative quiet before “Diamonds and Gasoline,” the title-track ballad off the band’s 2010 debut album, Felker made a dedication.

“This is for my lovely wife, wherever she’s at out there,” he said, glancing at the stage wings for Staci. The gesture’s message was unmistakable: The couple’s public strife in 2018 that coincided with the band’s hiatus was as in the past as the break itself.

The hour-and-a-half flew by. When the band left with only a wave after a one-song encore — appropriately “Long Drive Home” — there were actual tears from a great many fans wishing for another 90 minutes.

That part made sense. Rodgers said around 70,000 people attempted to get tickets to the Friday and Saturday shows that made up the band’s comeback weekend. Those who found their way inside for Night One were intent on making it special. The line to get in started at 5:30 a.m, when Matt Forrest from Plainview, Ark., drove by the ballroom to make sure he could stake out the first spot. He got out of his car at 8 a.m. and by mid-afternoon was fronting a line with a tailgating atmosphere. Folding chairs and coolers stretched the length of the building along Main Street north of downtown Tulsa.

“I’ve been seeing Turnpike since they would play at Stickyz Rock and Roll Chicken Shack in Little Rock with 20 people in the crowd and they had a van, not a bus,” Forrest said. “They’re a great band and I’m just looking forward to hearing them together — all of them again.”

Behind Forrest in the line, second through the doors, was Matt Westerman, a Texas native currently living in Maple Grove, Minn., demonstrating the broad interest in this particular concert.

“I’m just glad they’re back and that their first show is at Cain’s,” Westerman said. “This is my first ever show at Cain’s. I’ve been wanting to get here for so long, there’s no way this won’t be a good first show.”

On the other side of the door, those putting on the show felt the same.

Vandoliers, a Dallas cowpunk band fresh off a tour with Flogging Molly, opened the show with a high-energy set and frontman Joshua Fleming reminding the crowd that this night belonged to Turnpike.

“This show is not about the Vandoliers,” Fleming said from the stage. “It’s about you, and it’s about Turnpike, and it’s an honor to be here… Our favorite band’s back together, y’all!”

From the perspective of Cain’s, Rodgers had a cake made for the band with “Welcome Home” written in the icing. But he too quelled tears in a talk with Rolling Stone before the show when he lamented how big the time away had made Turnpike.

“I’m going to soak this up, these next two nights,” Rodgers said, “because, let’s be honest, they may never come back.”

Turnpike Troubadours Setlist:

Every Girl
7&7
Easton and Main
A Tornado Warning
Good Lord Lorrie
Morgan Street
Wrecked
Down Here
The Bird Hunters
Something to Hold on To
Blue Star
Pay No Rent
The Housefire
Gin, Smoke, Lies
1968
Diamonds and Gasoline
Drunk, High and Loud
Long Hot Summer Days
Bossier City
Long Drive Home

Josh Crutchmer is the author of the book Red Dirt: Roots Music, Born in Oklahoma, Raised in Texas, at Home Anywhere (Back Lounge Publishing, 2020).

In This Article: Turnpike Troubadours

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