Now, not everyone is able to wrap their heads around the fact that Tulsa, Oklahoma is a rockin’ place. Okie’s have a history of great music. Oklahoma natives include The Flaming Lips, Carrie Underwood, Reba McIntyre, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill, Hinder, All-American Rejects, Cross Canadian Ragweed, Blake Shelton, Toby Keith, Joe Diffee, Ronnie Dunn…the list goes on and on. Tulsa has always been a great place to catch some live music. Let’s take this last show I attended as an example. The venue, Cain’s Ballroom, is on the historical registry in Tulsa and has quite a history…here’s a little snippet from their web page…there’s going to be a book too…no seriously.
Built in 1924 by Tulsa entrepreneur Tate Brady, The Cain’s Ballroom has gone from a garage, a dime-a-dance joint and a dancing academy until it became what is known by artists and patrons alike as one of the top performance venues in the world today.
The highlight of the ballroom is a historic maple, spring loaded dance floor designed in a “log cabin” or concentric square pattern. Lighting the dance floor is a four-foot neon star and a silver disco ball. The walls are decorated with oversized photographs of various musicians who played Cain’s, including Bob Wills, Johnnie Lee Wills, Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Tex Ritter, Kay Starr and Tennessee Ernie Ford. Between the portraits are black fiddle-shaped fixtures illuminated by a single red bulb.
Bob Wills was born into a family of fiddlers where he learned to play the fiddle and mandolin. As a young man, Wills performed at house dances, medicine shows and on the radio. On New Year’s Night 1935, he made his debut at Cain’s and the venue soon became known as “The Home of Bob Wills.”
As The Home of Bob Wills and The Texas Playboys from 1935 to 1942, the ballroom was especially significant for popularizing a new sound of western music called western swing, a form of country and western that combined jazz, hillbilly, boogie, blues, big band swing, rhumba, mariachi and jitterbug music. Weekly dances, a midnight radio show and a daily noon-hour program were played by Bob Wills during what are remembered as his “glory years.”
Bob Wills is remembered as “The King of Western Swing.” He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1978, into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1999 and received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2007 for his significant contributions to American music from the 1930s through the 1960s. During his career, Wills wrote and recorded at least 470 songs, including “Take Me Back to Tulsa” and “San Antonio Rose,” and he influenced such artists as Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Asleep at the Wheel.
Cain’s is known throughout the music industry as not only “The Home of Bob Wills,” but also as the “Carnegie Hall of Western Swing.”
Cain’s Ballroom, Tulsa, Oklahoma
In what has to be one of the most incongruous pairings of band and venue, the Sex Pistols played the historic Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa in 1978 on one of only seven stops on their U.S. tour.
To this day, a framed piece of drywall Sid Vicious ostensibly punched a hole through commemorates the historic gig at the even more historic venue.
The Pistols were just passing through, but in generations past, the hallowed hall was home turf for Wills and His Texas Playboys, who broadcast their performances on national radio here on KVOO from 1934 to 1942 and would routinely pack more than 1,000 dancers onto the supposedly spring-loaded maple dance floor.
Originally intended to be a garage when it was built in 1924, the building instead became Cain’s Dance Academy in 1930 — its neon sign still advertises “ballroom dancing” — and finally a music venue in 1976.
Others who have filled the floor at the Cain’s include everyone from Ernest Tubb, Tex Ritter, and Tennessee Ernie Ford to The Strokes, Metallica and Elvis Costello.
Still going strong, the Cain’s manages to be both a landmark in the National Register of Historic Places and a pioneering live venue where you’re as likely to see the Josh Abbott Band and the National Fiddler Hall of Fame Induction as The Polyphonic Spree and dubstep deejay Excision.
However, as fascinating as I’m sure this history lesson has been, what you really want to know about is the show, right? Right! Alabama Shakes was the main event at Cain’s Ballroom. Their opening acts were Hurray for the Riff Raff and Fly Golden Eagle. I know a lot of people like to skip opening acts and just show up for the main event, but I kind of like them. Getting a sneak peek at up and comers is always fun for me. Then again, I just love music, especially live. Rock, Country, Broadway, Symphony…doesn’t really matter as long as it is done well, music makes me happy, and the opening acts were definitely well done.
Hurray for the Riff Raff has a folksy kind of country sort of sound. I’m a sucker for the string section, and Hurray for the Riff Raff has a good fiddle player and someone plucking the bass as well. A lot of the songs they played carried a message, about violence in their New Orleans neighborhood, the death of Treyvon Martin were just two of them that stayed with me long after the house lights came up. Their songwriting digs deep. The message is delivered with a nice mellow sound, and if I was looking to kick back and relax on the porch with some sweet tea, it would be perfect. After a burger and sweet potato fries at McNellie’s…it was not waking me up so much. The Bushmill’s Irish Honey whiskey probably only increased the overall mellowness, but that was not a bad thing.
Fly Golden Eagle was up next and their sound was much more energetic, and although space was at a premium on the floor, the music was something you wanted to move to. The crowd around me had started to get a bit restless and I couldn’t hear all the lyrics, but what I did catch had a philosophical bent to it. Greek myths were mentioned, and overall it came across as smart, intellectual songwriting. If Hurray for the Riff Raff conjured images of front porch rocking and sweet tea drinking, Fly Golden Eagle did the same for college. Fun, smart, a little ragged around the edges, but none of it mattered because you’re doing exactly what you want to do. The complete and total worn out, holey look of the lead singer’s shirt was a bit distracting, and only intensified the frat house feel….well maybe the frat house the morning after the party anyway. I really hope it was on purpose and not just a really really old shirt. When his hipster type black framed glasses flew off as he head banged his way across the stage, I chuckled.
At this point my patience with the jostling crowd was wearing thing in spots, and the temperatures were starting to rise. (When you’re Oklahoma, you become very concerned with the state of the air conditioning in mid-July when there’s a sold out show happening. It can go from a fun time to getting your goose cooked, pretty quickly.) Now it was time to take a quick walk before squeezing a bit closer to the stage, fluffing up the ole patience, love and human kindness to get ready. Alabama Shakes was up next.
Not bad, huh? I think I’m getting better at blindly taking pictures with my phone held above my head in crowded places…well maybe not better but more accepting of the result anyway. As annoying as the press of humanity had been before, once the music started washing over us, I kind of loved them all. Everybody was happy and singing along. There is something particularly…awesome about the crowd singing along out of tune with their favorite songs as the band plays on stage. You should have heard the crowd sing along to Hold On. I always forget my phone takes video when I’m at a concert. I get so wrapped up in the moment, and the music, and the movement. That is one bit I wish I could share, the sound of the crowd belting out the chorus. I’m grinning from ear to ear singing along with every song…most of the time I even know the words!
One of my favorite things is to watch the performers faces during those songs where everybody is singing along with them. That moment of awe that their music has touched that many people…again. I imagine it never gets old. Doesn’t it just make a show so much better when you know they’re up on stage doing what they love?
About halfway through the show, my friend and I decide we need some air. We take another walk around the floor, out to where you can still smell the barbecue from Oklahoma Joe’s BBQ . Although they had stopped serving their mouth watering pulled pork a while back, the bar is still open and the air is a bit cooler. We each run into old friends, acquaintances, and even co-workers. We watch couples dance and laugh and make fools of themselves. The look on the security guard’s face as he walks past some of the antics may have been one of my favorite parts of the evening, aside from the music….oh, God the music.
You learn something about people from the music the love, don’t you? Not just what they listen to but the stuff that lights them up when it comes on the radio. Music is just one of those things that speaks to the soul. It gets in your blood and pushes its way through the mind and the body…wow, now who’s waxing philosophical. Anyway, speaking of music there’s a new music festival in town this weekend that I think I’m going to try to check out, Center of the Universe Festival.
What’s one of your favorite places to see live musics? Do you have a “don’t miss” festival?
‘Til next time,
- LIVABILITY.COM ranks Tulsa Top 10 city for live music (jeffv305.wordpress.com)
- Downtown music festival kicks off Friday (kjrh.com)