The weather was perfect, it was First Friday and all sorts of folks were out wandering around, grabbing a drink or two and just taking in one of the more eclectic experiences around.
At Crossroads KC – the outdoor venue behind Grinder’s – the crowd was filling in early for the opener, Jason Boland and the Stragglers. They started at 8:00 sharp, and it was obvious that more than a couple attendees were there for them, not the headliners, Turnpike Troubadours.
The veteran Oklahoman eased through his twangy red dirt tunes with a smooth country drawl and a white cowboy hat, professionally warming up the growing audience as the sun slipped below the horizon.
But the biggest cheer for the openers came toward the end of their set, when Boland thanked the crowd and asked if everyone was ready to keep rocking with the Turnpike Troubadours. The audience roared for the relatively young headliners, who have only been a band since about 2007. Boland is an elder statesman comparatively – he’s been doing his thing for almost 20 years now, slowly and steadily.
But the Troubadours have been on a rocket ride the past year or so, going from playing small rooms around Texas and Oklahoma, to playing decent festival slots like Wakarusa, to headlining festival slots, and now nearly selling out Crossroads.
“I want to thank Jason Boland,” said Troubadours lead singer Evan Felker toward the end of the night. “He was the first guy who let us open for him back in the day.”
Boland even came out for a couple songs at the end of the Troubadours’ set, riffing on acoustic and electric guitars alongside his buddies.
Prior to that, Felker and Co. sent Crossroads KC into a plaid, pearl snap frenzy for 90 minutes, blazing through their impressive catalog, all of which sounded like they could be singles.
Some early standouts included Morgan Street and Before the Devil Knows We’re Dead. But things really picked up when Felker grabbed his banjo and the band slipped into the dark and smoky Gin, Smoke, Lies, a song that has a little more sinister feel to it than some of their more straight forward fiddle-rockers.
All I smell/ Is cheap perfume/ and gin/ and smoke/ and lies…
Another highlight was Good Lord Lorrie, a swinging mid-tempo tune that features some simple yet effective harmonica work by Felker. The crowd helped ease his workload, belting out the chorus above the PA.
Good Lord Lorrie/ I love ya/ Could it go more wrong?
Not that he needed the help, really. Felker’s voice is what really carries this band. Don’t get me wrong, the other members are solid – particularly lead guitarist Ryan Engelman who fills in everything with his speedy flat picking. But Felker’s nuanced croon and relatable lyrics are the extra splash of bourbon on top of an already stout horsefeather.
Never was that more apparent than on Whole Damn Town, a simple song about small town life. In between swigging whiskey out of a clear, plastic water bottle, Felker looked like he was going to lose it, grimacing and steadying himself, only to come back stronger each time. It wasn’t wasted on the crowd up front, who could see the singer’s watery eyes blur out. Just when Felker looked shakiest, though, he sucked everyone right back in, throwing a nod out to the openers:
Well I could go downtown and drink till dawn/
I could sing those Jason Boland songs/
oh but daylight finds me bored and blue/
the whole damn town’s in love with you
Right back at ya.