Concert Reviews

The Turnpike Troubadours Finally Returned to Texas, Bringing Joy and Triumph With Them

Turnpike Troubadours long-awaited return to Billy Bob's was a capital-E Event.
Turnpike Troubadours long-awaited return to Billy Bob's was a capital-E Event. Kelly Dearmore
Given its historic status, it’s fair to say that any concert at Billy Bob’s Texas in the Fort Worth Stockyards is a big show. Each Friday and Saturday night, the massive honky-tonk, pool hall, bull-riding arena hosts the biggest names in country music for over 5,000 fans. If you’re a country artist and have yet to perform in the hallowed venue, then you likely haven’t quite hit the big time, not just yet.

But let’s be clear here. A Friday night at Billy Bob’s where a throng of folks catches the latest mainstream Nashville hitmaker is one thing. A fine time will be had by all, to be sure. But there’s another, more electrically elite level of Friday nights at Billy Bob’s, one that seldom comes around, even for the “World’s Largest Honky Tonk.” It’s hard to define, but when that special occasion energy can be felt immediately when entering the venue, you know it.

This past Friday night with the Turnpike Troubadours was one such highly charged night. It was an emotional, exciting and exhausting affair. It was everything the group’s dedicated followers had been hoping it would be for so very long now. It wasn’t a concert, but a capital E Event.

The intensity felt throughout the night began building just shy of three years ago. In May 2019, in a move that some fans might argue foreshadowed the dumpster fire nature of 2020, the Troubadours announced they would be taking an indefinite hiatus. The announcement came on the heels of some last-minute concert cancellations and rumors of lead-singer Evan Felker’s battles with alcohol, whispers fueled by performances when the singer was visibly drunk on stage.

By that point, the band had gone from a little-known opening act on the Texas country and Oklahoma red dirt scenes following the release of their debut album in 2007, to become the best song-for-song, album-for-album, concert-for-concert country band around well before 2019 brought about the unraveling. Years’ worth of rightfully praised albums and sold-out shows across the United States, all without the assistance of a major record label or mainstream country radio airplay, solidified the band’s status as the kings of the scene.

Finally, in November of 2021, the group’s social media accounts surprisingly popped into life to begin announcing new concert dates for 2022. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Felker confirmed that he “found sobriety and recovery,” and that the band was simply ready to be a band again. Tickets for the first two reunion shows to be announced, at the Red Rocks Amphitheatre near Denver, sold out within minutes. A bit later when the Billy Bob’s dates went on sale, the number of fans trying to snag tickets at the same time was enormous enough to crash its website. That scenario played out at other venues in other cities as well. With all due respect to Country Music Hall of Fame mother-daughter duo The Judds, who are reuniting again for a tour alter this year, it’s not a stretch to say that the return of the Turnpike Troubadours is the biggest country music welcome back party in recent memory.

Needless to say, the band could’ve, perhaps should’ve, scheduled its first shows back in much larger spaces. Before their break, their North Texas shows had outgrown even the cavernous Billy Bob’s. They were scheduled to perform at the 8,000-capacity Pavilion at Toyota Music Factory in Irving in August 2019 after filling the 6,000-capacity Texas CU Trust Theatre (then-named Verizon Theatre) in 2018. But according to a statement from the band, they wanted to begin their new era in venues that held a special place in their hearts. After sold-out shows on Thursday, Friday and again on Saturday, it’s not difficult to think Billy Bob’s has become even more special to the band.

Following a predictably killer opening set by Austin’s honky-tonk heroes Mike and the Moonpies, the men of the moment took to the stage as Jimi Hendrix’s searing “Voodoo Chile” blared across the club. The space in front of the stage, typically packed tightly with banquet tables and chairs, was instead filled with standing fans ready to erupt, and erupt everyone did as Felker belted out “Well, she was born in the morning, late October, San Antone, oh she’s every girl I’ve ever known.”

Friday night’s was the fourth Troubadours show of the new era, following a pair in Tulsa a couple weeks ago and Thursday night’s at Billy Bob’s, but any active Richter scale surely registered that it was the first time for most of the audience to see their heroes live in many years. The roaring sing-along to the first several songs often overwhelmed Felker’s own vocals, but it was a triumphant, joyful sound, not a Beatlemania-style distraction.

When it comes to any band, it’s easy to focus in on the lead singer. For as skilled of a songwriter and warm of a vocalist as Felker is, his band is full of stone-cold killers. The unit’s ability to turn even a softer song into a rousing ruckus is remarkable and seems to be as intact as ever. At various points throughout the 90-minute show, each Troubadour displayed why he is a key part of a machine that has so quickly reclaimed its spot among the top of the country music mountain.

Hank Early’s soaring pedal steel wafted beautifully through “Whole Damn Town,” as fiddle player Kyle Nix majestically made “The Bird Hunters” even more anthemic than it already was. Lead guitarist Ryan Engleman repeatedly proved why he’s as dangerous of a secret weapon as there is, but especially in the raucous, rousing jam to end “Something to Hold On To”.

Every song was an unwrapping of what has made the band so beloved, but that’s not to say the machine is well-oiled just yet. There were some line flubs from Felker, most notably in “Good Lord Lorrie,” but instead of feeling concerned over the mistake being alcohol-induced, the laughs and smiles from one another on stage signaled that it was more the result of some friends still finding their familiar footing together after being apart of so long.

The imperfections added to the unique nature of the big night. They made an already very special occasion even more personal to those who worried they’d never get the chance to sing along with their favorite band again. There are still a million things wrong in the world today, but for the foreseeable future, no one has to face it without arguably the best band in country music hitting the road and singing their songs.
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Kelly Dearmore