Pieter Van Hattem
On May 2, I had a very pleasant conversation with vocalist/guitarist Dave Simonett of Trampled By Turtles. We talked for nearly half an hour -- 27 minutes to be exact -- and covered a wide variety of subjects from the band’s origins in Duluth, Minn., to the quintet’s unique style and much more. Yet, when I sat down to transcribe the interview, the file would not play. I did research, went on chat boards, and asked a few of my most techy friends, but despite a serious effort, I simply could not retrieve the corrupt file. Things happen, but I was especially disappointed in this one, given that Dave had so many great things to say.
But now, I’m almost glad it turned out the way it did, because it ensured I would go see the band’s sold-out show at the Belly Up on Monday night. I’d seen the distinctive bluegrass outfit a couple of times, but sometimes that dampers my motivation to leave the house again -- especially on a weeknight. But I was glad to be in the Solana Beach venue when the band took the stage around 9:15 p.m. on Monday. Standing side-by-side across a darkened and minimally adorned stage, Trampled By Turtles opened with the harmonizing of “Alone,” from their newly released Stars and Satellites. The new album is their most nuanced to date, and the seven cuts they played from it throughout the night were welcome additions.
As expected, the music was the focus for most of the evening, but Simonett did occasionally address the wildly enthusiastic crowd. The first time he simply quipped, “It’s always good to be back in California,” following it by letting everyone know that “Banjo Dave went surfing for the first time today! And he’s still alive!” Then it was back to the music for at least six or seven tunes before we heard from him again.
The band played in front of a large, white backdrop, but it wasn’t really utilized until almost halfway through the set. During “Midnight on the Interstate,” a gigantic image of a full moon was projected onto it. It was lovely, but no one seemed to care. They were there for something else.
Trampled By Turtles have been called everything from indie folk to new-grass, jam-grass and every other ridiculous bluegrass/folk/country word mash-up possible, but things seem to get streamlined when they play live. Each player in the Minnesota five-piece is incredibly talented, and they’re obviously drawing from bluegrass and folk traditions, but it’s their punk-rock style and attitude that people seem to love. And nothing gets audiences more frothy than the speed and dexterity with which these guys play.
Their trademark fast, frenetic finger-picking/plucking has become something audiences come to witness, and Monday night was no exception. During a barn-burner like 2010’s “Sounds Like a Movie,” banjo player Dave Carroll’s playing was met with wild yawps, a multitude of yee-haws and some jumping up and down the likes of which are typically relegated to hip-hop or rock shows.
Throughout the night, the enthusiastic fans nodded heads, fist-pumped and, I’m sure, made the band feel good about the sweat they all were working up. The only downside was that the quieter numbers were all but lost in the din of the jacked-up crowd members, who seemed to be waiting for the next time the fiddle, mandolin or banjo would melt their faces.
But the band didn’t seem to care, and when Simonett addressed the crowd later on, he joked about the venue’s unique décor: “I don’t know if anyone has ever told you before that you look like an audience that’s about to be eaten by a gigantic shark, but that’s exactly what you look like.” And when the frontman passed on wearing a hat that someone threw on stage, mandolin player Erik Berry obliged, much to the capacity crowd’s delight.
The band played at least one song from each of their six records, and by the end of the night, both performers and audience were a sweaty, spent mess. But I don’t think either side would have wanted it any other way.