Five members of Trampled By Turtles stood cool and collected at the front of the stage, a sixth upright bass stood slightly behind, each one a necessary, weight bearing cog of a string stampede. They moved to a rhythm set by their own pulse and willing flesh. Lead vocalist and guitarist, Dave Simonett, had an easy voice to listen to—a vein through an ocean storm with no resistance. The raging gale showed up in spectacular fiddle and mandolin solos that made these two instruments the unlikely rock stars of the group.
Ryan Young took the fiddle to his toes then back up, attempting to saw it in half with his bow. Erik Berry gently strummed the rhythm of a supporting drum on the mandolin before taking a turn burning his fingers over strings about five times past when I expected them to stop and another two past the reasonable point where digits simply detach from hands and fall to the ground. Simonett, along with Tim Saxhaug (bass guitar) and Dave Carroll (banjo), started beautifully harmonized vocals before the stampede was over and gently, solidly, drew the group back to turtles. These turtles were not slow moving. An even and calm composure permeated the nature of the men on stage so that even under the fast-paced unleashing there was a feel of patience. Cooperative, intricately timed collaboration fueled this hard working band, making art.
They started slow and sweet. A spotlight shone on each individual as they took the reigns (giving the eye a hint as to where to place its gaze) as sound alone was not a trustworthy deciphering agent of the experimental exploration of the instruments’ origins. There were heavy drums without one in sight. Abbreviated underwater echoes trembled out of thick bass strings but also out of the fiddle and mandolin. Vocals released accumulated momentum in long, high tones and harmonies. The spotlight could not breed fast enough and so shone them all, and the trampling began.
My first, “Wow,” of the night got strong enough inside that it made its way through my lips into the open air with a fiddle solo that made three fires. Not just a standard quick bow etch over the strings to make the chords scream. Young moved to three different geographical regions of that small instrument and played each in short convulsive passes to explosive ecstasy. Long bows followed and tore that instrument apart. More and more. Higher and higher. When the steam ran out, the baton passed to the mandolin and Berry followed the same path on his instrument, continually pushing beyond the natural exhaustion point.
The crowd yelled, “Turtles!” Actually… just one man yelled, Turtles; every few minutes in fact, for hours. Clearly, this was one of the risks the band took by emulating the musical title of a bale of testudines pummeling ones vital organs. Bulls, you expect a trample, but turtles require surprise, awe, power and patience. This can incite unorthodox responses. The music followed suit and, though certainly in the bluegrass realm, it seemed to break through raw, ground-stomping earth more than inspire flight and flailing limbs, more common to the genre. Cracking solid form with vibration, the music moved sound in a slow built frenzy that could fracture a boulder without touch; split a tree, screaming, by pulsing through the phloem. Slow, potent harmony seeped through the cracks. And, the man yelling, “Turtles,” made more sense.
Slow, lullaby-like songs turned into high-speed hootenannies. Sweet and complete folk harmonies gathered the music back to cohesive song and laced the varying tempos and techniques in a well-bound performance novel. They ended with a proper goodbye song, then left the stage for the Electric Avenue rock part of the show, where the speakers played that 80’s song to help us dance our way out of the venue. Surprising, right to the end.