The Turnpike Troubadours are the kind of band modern country music needs: skilled musicians and crafty songwriters steeped in several traditions and not the least bit concerned with prevailing trends and fashions.
Friday night, the quintet from Tahlequah, Okla., drew more than 2,200 fans into the Uptown Theater, where, for nearly two hours, they unleashed a slew of songs about love, heartache and some of the hard-earned lessons of small-town life.
The Troubadours are a red-dirt band, but their music visits other genres: Southern rock, traditional country, bluegrass and, when the accordion and fiddle kick in together, like they did on “Shreveport,” in a bit of Cajun, evoking an array of comparisons and resemblances: The Gourds, Drive-By Truckers, New Riders of the Purple Sage, Whiskeytown and Old 97’s among them. One of the evening’s many highlights was the lively cover of the 97’s’ “Doreen.”
They opened with “The Bird Hunters,” a lament rife with details about a guy who goes back home with a bad case of heartbreak and rejoins his hunting buddies, who notice a few changes: “Your time spent in Tulsa / Did not help your shooting / And look at the gray in your hair.” They also advise him that the breakup was for the best: “If you’d have married that girl / You’d have married her family / You dodged a bullet my friend.”
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As it did on nearly every song that followed (except for a new song), the crowd sang along with gusto, especially to the rowdy chorus.
And so it went all night on songs like “Every Girl,” “7&7,” “1968,” “Good Lord Lorrie” and “Down Here,” a keep-your-chin up honky-tonk ballad with a keeper of a chorus: “You’re gonna be alright, you’ll be fine / You can have a nickel outta my last dime / The moon is bright and you’re alright down here.”
Evan Felker is the Troubadour’s primary songwriter and one who deserves mention among other more heralded peers, like Ryan Adams, Jeff Tweedy and Jason Isbell. He is also the lead vocalist, and with a minimal amount of pomp or flare he radiates a commanding presence. He gets plenty of support, instrumentally and vocally, from the boys behind him, who flashed their skills all night on guitar, accordion, pedal steel, fiddle, harmonica, percussion.
Other highlights: “Gin, Smoke, Lies” – the band’s “hit” if it has one – which featured Felker on banjo; “The Mercury,” a rowdy ode to a bar and a few of its unhinged regulars; and “Whole Damn Town,” another jaunty, melodic, well-crafted song built on clever chord progressions that tells the tale of a guy trying to get along after a breakup when “the whole damn town” is in love with the girl who left him. It’s a song built for radio – short and punchy with a melody that lingers – but not one likely to get any spin.
But if Friday’s show and the nearly sold-out Uptown proved anything, it’s that while a band this stellar would do country radio plenty of good, the Troubadours are doing just fine without the help.
Lucero: This veteran band from Tennessee has been around for nearly 20 years, and they’re accustomed to being headliners. They took second-billing tonight but drew a big, appreciative crowd. Their music fuses the sounds of Memphis: mostly country, rock and organ-fueled soul with some country-punk attitude. Their one-hour set included favorites like “Texas & Tennessee,” “Last Night in Town” and “On My Way Downtown.”