Trampled By Turtles | The Vic Theatre | January 24, 2013
Photo: Ryan Bourque
Duluth, Minnesota’s Trampled by Turtles swung through town on January 24 for a sold-out show at the Vic, one of many sold-out dates on their current tour. Just on the eve of their 10th anniversary as a band, the Turtles have seen a huge spike in popularity in response to their last two albums, Palomino (2010) and Stars and Satellites (2012). This isn’t an isolated trend either: Mumford & Sons have scored big recently with their bombastic take on American bluegrass, and The Lumineers, a folk group from Denver, released one of the most popular songs of 2012, the achingly sincere “Ho Hey.”
Finally, Trampled by Turtles are in the right place at the right time, armed with a homegrown loyal fan base and an established sound which blends elements of bluegrass with the speed and drive of punk. After witnessing their nearly two-hour set at the Vic, there’s no doubt these guys can play, and fast.
The new single “Alone” opened the set and found the band utilizing their dynamic power. Gradually they built from a single acoustic guitar into the coda’s wordless harmony and cascade of descending scales from violinist Ryan Young. Young’s melodic sensibility is one of the band’s greatest strengths, and his playing routinely drew huge responses from the Vic’s rowdy crowd.
However, the problem with TBT’s sound is that they rely heavily on extremes: songs so fast that they threaten to careen off the rails (“Codeine,” “It’s A War”), or aching dirges that just barely reach the end (“Gasoline”). This back and forth is so much more evident in the live setting, and it almost became like a game to predict whether the next song would be a ballad or a barnburner. Rapid-fire songs like “Wait So Long” are fun, but they often cover up the band’s obvious melodic talents with a wall of strings barreling along at one dynamic.
These extremes are frustrating though, because when the quintet relaxes their chops, the songs open up into some of the best pop-bluegrass out there, which is what makes their newest album Stars and Satellites a much more satisfying listen. On the new mid-tempo tune “Midnight on the Interstate,” bassist Tim Saxhaug played more melodically and lead singer Dave Simonett’s lyrics lost the chant-like quality so common in the band’s white-knuckle barnburners. Musically and lyrically, “Midnight on the Interstate” showed the band gradually moving outside their comfort zone of bouncy bluegrass towards more mature songwriting that actually displayed their strengths as musicians and lyricists. Not surprisingly, these newer songs were the clear highlights of the night, along with a folked up version of John Lennon’s “Oh Yoko” and the old song “Whiskey” during the encore.
TBT will probably never ditch their fastest material for good, and that’s fine—these songs are fun in moderation. But it’s exciting to hear them writing more mature songs and getting some well-deserved praise after 10 years.