Trampled by Turtles | 01.22 | S.F.

Words by: Dennis Cook | Images from:

Trampled By Turtles :: 01.22.10 :: The Independent :: San Francisco, CA

Trampled by Turtles
It’s always a good sign at a string band show when one of the pickers is wearing overalls. It’s not a garment one sees in common usage much outside of places where folks actually use them for work, and certainly not at a hip San Fran music venue like The Independent. But, even before he sat down on his metal folding chair onstage and cradled his mandolin close to his chest, Erik Berry of Duluth, Minnesota’s Trampled by Turtles looked like a man who’d come to play and play hard. When some see a dude in denim overalls they see a hayseed, but I see someone ready to get a lil’ dirt under their nails. And boy howdy did these Turtles do that, prying up metaphorical floorboards and swinging ’em around with infectious glee.

The ‘turtle’ in their name is vaguely ironic given their propensity for speedy playing, which, though too technical and consciously crafted to be pure punk, shares the zest of the safety pin ‘n’ Mohawk crowd. And though they surely played hard and fast in their opening set for The Devil Makes Three, TBT also showed a knack for quieter spaces and graceful turns. Just listen to their last album, Duluth (2008), for a strong sense of their range, where the set closing “White Noise” stirs up a dust devil but it’s joined by the skipping, pretty “The Darkness and the Light” and the strike-to-the-core beauty of “Methodism in Middle America.” What ties together these elements is a palpable musical drive and solid-to-the-bone songwriting, which both emerged quite strongly in concert.

Trampled by Turtles is the new generation of string band, and thus bluegrass is the foundation but there’s a mystery house of other influences swirled into things. Seated and hunting dog focused on their instruments, the quintet plays as if they were capering about, knees bouncing high and legs swinging like a jellyfish barn dance while their upper bodies lock into whatever pocket they’re currently probing, heads bouncing – particularly Berry and violinist Ryan Young – but eyes sharply fixed on some shared goal in the distance. Young, by the way, is a murderously good fiddler, the sort of boy that’d walk away with the golden violin and spit in the Devil’s eye as he took possession of it. Though my first time seeing TBT, I could tell they’ve got a lot of personality as musicians. They give off a vibe similar to the first few times I caught Yonder or Nickel Creek, where the people making these sounds become characters themselves, a part of the music that goes beyond technique and note choices. I can see why they’ve got a sizeable following in their home state and Midwest – they are exceedingly likeable guys onstage.

Trampled by Turtles
TBT often moved like a freight train without brakes during this set, except they knew the twists in the track well enough to avoid ever slipping off the rails, gliding into hairpin turns and dipping into unseen gullies without incident. I get the sense they practice – a lot. Crisp vocals sat atop frequently manic tempos and creaking strings, yet many of the most effective moments happened when they slowed down and took us into richer emotional marrow. They’ve been compared to Uncle Tupelo and it’s an apt touchstone, though TBT thankfully lacks some of the more glaring ego of Tweedy or Farrar. They share a number of traits in common with under-known contemporaries Chatham County Line and Hot Day At The Zoo, which is nothing but good. There’s something undeniably “down home” about these boys, which perhaps belies the thought and care put into their music. For as easy-going as TBT seems, listen a bit closer and you’ll hear music that’s been assembled with real care and heart that’s neither sloppy nor “easy” in any way.

Though the opener for Devil Makes Three, whose fans had packed The Independent two nights in a row, Trampled by Turtles, at least to my sensibilities, was the more exciting, interesting group. DM3 is as fine and charming a string band as you could want, hauling traditional fare into the modern day with tales of daytime drunks and other shady doings, but theirs is a sound and style that’s been evolving for a while with the likes of the Asylum Street Spankers, Squirrel Nut Zippers and others. What I dug about Trampled by Turtles is how they handle string band music as if it were something freshly plucked from richly scented soil. For sure, they follow in many footsteps but they engage the genre with a gusto and talent that’s rare and makes one anxious to hear where they go next.

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