Precision has long been an important part of Trampled by Turtles’ live show. The Duluth quintet have built their reputation on playing lightening-quick, shredding string music that tests the limits of bluegrass and pushes it toward heavy metal, and one of the most fascinating parts of watching them perform has been seeing how responsive they are to one another and how tightly intertwined their instruments remain regardless of the speed.
The new songs from Trampled by Turtles’ Wild Animals, which is out next week and which the band previewed at a private Cedar Cultural Center show last night, test those skills of precision and responsiveness in a new way. For the first time in the band’s eight-album history the record consists almost entirely of downtempo ballads. And at the Cedar those somber, sumptuous songs showed off the band’s talents in an entirely new way.
The band played the album from start to finish, and it built an incredible momentum for the live performance—especially because they didn’t really work up to any kind of pulsing beat until the fourth track and didn’t break into a jog until the fifth—and it set the tone out of the gate that this would be a different kind of Trampled by Turtles show, less about dancing and more about listening. The Cedar was the ideal setting for this, of course, with their impeccable live sound, and the audience stood transfixed as all five members moved to their microphones on the stunning opener “Wild Animals” and closed the song with only their voices filling the room. Vocal harmonies are not a new aspect of the band’s music, but the full-band harmonies could often be masked by the flurry of string picking and chaos; in this setting, you could hear every phrase and every breathe. There was nothing to cover it up, and no room to fudge. It had to be perfect, and it was.
The five Duluth-born musicians were lined up in their typical row across the stage, and for this show they brought out two special guests—cellist Eamonn McCain (Lucy Michelle and the Velvet Lapelles), who played every song from the rear of the stage, and drummer JT Bates, who added rhythmic structure to “Repetition” and “Are You Behind the Shining Star?” by banging a tambourine.
In addition to accentuating the band’s vocal harmonies, the slower and more stripped-down approach also better highlighted each of the member’s skills as individuals. Dave Simonett is becoming more of a frontman all the time, his voice moving forward in the mix and the focus circling around his lonesome lyrics and devastating melodies, while each of his bandmates took at least one turn in the spotlight. Ryan Young’s fiddle, especially, had a starring role on these new songs (his solo on “Silver Light” was especially strong); Dave Carroll’s sweet, higher-pitched voice was featured as the most prominent harmony tone; Erik Berry took a blazing solo on his mandolin on the fiery “Western World,” and Tim Saxhaug closed out the night by singing lead on the band’s cover of Loudon Wainwright III’s “The Swimming Song.”
We’ve always known that Trampled by Turtles had a unique power when their forces were combined, but these new arrangements show that each individual has what it takes to stand alone, too. In that kind of showcase and with that kind of build-up, the moments when they come together as a group are downright stunning.
Trampled by Turtles set list:
Are You Behind the Shining Star?
Come Back Home
The Swimming Song (Loudon Wainwright III)