If anyone who’s listened to Trampled by Turtles’ most recent album wondered whether they were finally slowing down, fear not. As is their style, the Minnesota quintet quickly fingerpicked up the pace during the second of two nights at the Ogden Theatre in Denver on January 11.
Oh, maybe the string-speed demons who are celebrating their 10th year together as fast-breaking bluegrass-hoppers with more punk than country sensibilities are easing back on the Jameson shots — just a little. But they are still a no-nonsense act taking a nonstop approach, delivering to the delight of a sold-out house that tried to keep up for the entire 100 minutes.
A sneak preview came with a sweet taste of honeyhoney, the double dose of daring-do known as Suzanne Santo (banjo, violin) and Ben Jaffe (guitars), whose charismatic presence and cowpunkabilly riffs set the stage for the perfect storm just ahead.
About halfway through their 45-minute set, Jaffe announced “It is a massive honor for us to ask out Trampled by Turtles to play this song with us.”
As frontman and lead singer Dave Simonett (acoustic guitar), Tim Saxhaug (bass), Dave Carroll (banjo), Erik Berry (mandolin) and Ryan Young (fiddle) took their places, Santo, battling a cold that only heightened the sensation of listening to her sensuous voice, joked, “We paid them a lot of money to walk out here.”
With her luminous smile and short black dress temporarily grabbing the attention from the all-boys club of beards and blue jeans, the Lady and the Trampled collaborated on honeyhoney’s ominous “Angel of Death.”
Santo somehow fit right in with her plucky persona, sashaying during Trampled’s brief mandolin, fiddle, banjo and guitar solos that elicited the first hearty cheers of the night.
Of course, those would come as frequently as the ruthless, fingerpickin’-good assaults by Young, Berry, Carroll (left) and Simonett when Trampled by Turtles owned the stage for 23 songs, including three encores.
A whirlwind set that relied heavily on their last two albums, 2010’s Palomino and last year’s more subdued Stars and Satellites, practically tested the audience’s loyalty: Does new TBT mean improved TBT?
As the primary songwriter, Simonett likes to switch it up occasionally, and the ebb and flow was evident throughout the night. Head-bangers like “Feet and Bones,” Banjo Dave’s “Sounds Like a Movie” and the second half of Berry’s “New Son/Burnt Iron” (all from Palomino) were offset by bleak, sorrowful numbers from Stars and Satellites. Maybe just to let them — and the audience — catch their breath, “Keys to Paradise” and “The Calm and the Crying Wind” were played in succession. Despite its dreary tone — And Happy Birthday / You didn't want to celebrate / And I was an hour late / And you fell apart — the album-opening “Midnight on the Interstate” made for an effective singalong.
Stars and Satellites has other crowd-pleasing gems, too, including the set-opening “Alone,” which rises remarkably after a lovely start, followed later by “Walt Whitman,” which truly swings even if the renowned American poet the song references didn’t. There were tributes to some of the land’s more recent lyrical luminaries, too, with a souped-up cover of the Beach Boys’ “Sloop John B” (sung by Saxhaug, right) and Bob Dylan’s “Tonight I'll Be Staying Here With You,” with a vocal assist from These United States’ Jesse Elliott, who now lives in Denver.
Perhaps acknowledging the significance of their 10-year anniversary, Trampled by Turtles also is dipping into their past to include tunes such as "Whiskey" (from their first album, 2004’s Songs from a Ghost Town), "Codeine" (2005’s Blue Sky and the Devil) and “Arming of Infants” and “Still in Love With You” (both from 2007’s Trouble).
Frenzied finishes by Berry on “The Darkness and the Light” (from 2008’s Duluth) and Young on Palomino’s “It’s a War” were extraordinary examples of how this fan-friendly outfit consistently meets expectations. (From left, Erik Berry and Ryan Young.)
Still a punker at heart, Simonett was 23 when he moved from electric rock bands to start his first acoustic-based project — a Trampled by Turtles quartet that didn’t include Young or his fiery fiddle.
In our 2011 interview, Simonett revealed that during his formative years in Mankato, he jumped from groups such as Simple Junction when he was 18 to “a heavy rock band that turned into a hip-hop band, which is the weirdest thing for a bunch of white kids from Duluth” to the Whistling Moon Travelers (“kind of just an instrumental noise band”).
He continues to experiment with mellower side projects such as Dead Man Winter, a plugged-in but subtler combo (with three shows scheduled in Minneapolis next month) that allows patient fans a glimpse of the lead singer-songwriter’s reflective side.
Yet, Simonett certainly must feel blessed by the success of Trampled by Turtles, who continue to build their widening base by appearing on shows such as Conan this week, when they played "It's a War." Every time the band returns to Denver, though, he seems especially touched by the outpouring of affection.
“Thank you for coming tonight and last night,” Simonett (right) offered near the show’s midway point as the customary rounds of that smooth Irish whiskey were delivered — in plastic cups. “It means a lot to us, really. Thank you. I probably say this every time we’re here but we’ve been coming to Colorado for longer than we’ve really been going anywhere else. And it’s kind of a second home for us.”
Fifteen minutes later, just before their popular cover of the Pixies' "Where Is My Mind?" drew an immediate adrenalized response, a second round of the devil's brew made it to the front of the stage. An older-but-wiser Simonett respectfully declined, saying, “Well I think for the good of the show and everybody that paid money to be here, I’m gonna wait to take this until later.”
Which he did for the grand finale, needing only one big gulp before calling it a night with a blazing version of "Wait So Long." It was a fitting end for this good-to-the-last-drop band that doesn’t need kerosene to keep the fire burning.
After taking a while to warm up to Trampled by Turtles (“It was to the point where we almost stopped coming,” Simonett has said), Coloradans have proudly treated them like successful adopted sons since 2011.
During that breakthrough year, they sold out the Ogden for the first time (on April Fool’s Day), then kicked up a sandstorm in their Telluride Bluegrass Festival debut in June. After playing Rockygrass in Lyons last July, they'll return to Telluride this summer and join the mix of Planet Bluegrass' own delicious blend of genre-bending acts for the event's 40th anniversary celebration.
There’s no doubt who'll be leading the toast of the town.
Concert photos by Michael Bialas. See more of Trampled by Turtles and honeyhoney at the Ogden Theatre in Denver.