Pumping Life Into Dead Man Winter
It would be so easy to rebrand his latest side project as Trampled by Winter or Dead Man Turtles. Apparently, Dave Simonett, the primary songwriter, singer, guitarist and frontman of Trampled by Turtles, had something completely different in mind with Dead Man Winter.
Simonett built the Duluth, Minnesota-based Turtles into a popular punk-grass unit with years of steady touring and a collection of rapid-fire rave-ups that gave the genre a breath of fresh air-conditioning. Not content to repeat himself, he basically started from scratch with Dead Man Winter until full Turtle power gets restored.
Actually, the new outfit includes two other Turtles — fiddler Ryan Young and bassist-vocalist Tim Saxhaug. No longer unplugged, Simonett can finally dig deeper into his roots past and rely on influences (Bob Dylan) and heroes (Townes Van Zandt) with this electrified alt-country/Americana configuration.
Their debut record, Bright Lights, which Simonett produced and recorded in Minneapolis (where he currently lives) was released August 16 (Banjodad Records).
It’s a clear departure from the foot-stomping, hell-raising sounds of his good-time band of brothers, focusing more on Simonett’s introspective side. Only a countrified version of “New Orleans,” the original appearing on TBT’s breakthrough album Palomino, connects him to that past life, while 10 new numbers offer an exploration into a deeper, darker soul.
Beginning in mid-August, Dead Man Winter toured through Colorado, then Alaska, returned home to Minnesota for some September dates and are scheduled to wrap up with shows in Chicago (Schubus) on Thursday (September 29), Milwaukee on Friday and Madison, Wis., on Saturday. Trampled by Turtles start up again October 6 in Duluth, and are booked regularly into December.
Obviously, Dead Man Winter didn’t mean the death of Trampled by Turtles, but did give Simonett (left) a chance to recharge his batteries. As he explained on the group’s website, “The drums and amps ringing in the back of my head have been getting louder and the desire to play, write, and record in a way removed from what I’ve been up to has been getting stronger.”
So Simonett brought in guitarist/engineer/pedal steel player/pal Erik Koskinen and drummer Noah Levy to replace the formidable skill sets of Trampled members Erik Berry (mandolin) and Banjo Dave Carroll. Utilizing more friends on the album while playing together off and on for about a year, Simonett wanted to combine some mellower, acoustic-based songs with a heavier-rocking “Americana vibe.”
Dead Man Winter’s lyrics, all written by Simonett, touch on loneliness and despair, as bleak and harsh as the frozen landscape that only Minnesotans can love. Even on the somewhat spry “Nicotine,” a resigned voice paints a dismal picture:
On the outside it’s shaking,
On the inside we’re breaking,
And we drink to fall apart
But we’re all fucked from the start, anyway
“We worked on the record for about the last six months or so,” Simonett told me in June, weeks before the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, where Trampled by Turtles turned up the mid-afternoon heat with a scorching set.
They were standouts on a sizzling bill that included Old Crow Medicine Show, Steve Earle & the Dukes (and Duchesses), Mumford & Sons and Robert Plant and Band of Joy.
That electrifying experience in front of a strong throng eating their own dust in Town Park had to provide an energy boost that remained two months later, when a Trampled by Turtles trio returned to Colorado for four dates with two new bandmates.
In our Bound for Telluride interview, Simonett spoke of his love for the Centennial State and how that feeling was reciprocated by Trampled’s fervent fan following over the past two years. It reached its peak with sellouts at the 3,000-seat Ogden Theatre in April and the Telluride performance on June 17.
“It’s been a really good second home for us,” Simonett said of Colorado. “When we started to do well elsewhere (in the state), Denver took forever to catch on. And now it’s probably the best town we have outside of home.”
That sense of loyalty and lofty expectations probably helped bring Dead Man Winter to the Mile High City, but the results at the dingy Larimer Lounge on August 20 couldn’t have been completely satisfying.
A hard-core group of trashed talkers near the front of the small stage were amusing for only a brief moment before becoming trained wrecks. Simonett attempted to ignore the disruption while either tuning his acoustic and electric guitars or dealing with a spotty sound system.
But Dead Man Winter persevered, playing nine of the 11 tracks from Bright Lights. With many in the cramped room expecting a Trampled by Turtles-like show, Simonett gave the rowdies a sample of what they wanted, with “New Orleans” and “Victory” (also off Palomino) getting singalong treatments. Few, if any, seemed to recognize the opening “Widower’s Heart,” an unreleased ballad TBT recently performed on HearYa.com’s Live Session #90.
Simonett, who had some nice harmonica turns on “Wasteland” and “A Long, Cold Night in Minneapolis,” graciously featured Koskinen, on electric guitar and pedal steel, and Young, the fiddler who also played guitar, throughout the night. (From left, Erik Koskinen, Ryan Young and Dave Simonett.)
They cranked out Bright Lights rockers such as “House of Glory,” “Industrial DayBreak” and “Get Low,” all of which had an earthy Drive-By Truckers feel to them.
Finally, near the end of the 75-minute set, there was a lull in the hard-drinking crowd during Simonett’s performance of the album’s melancholy title track. But a familiar face standing to the left of the stage delivered the band a few shots of inspiration.
Wearing a Minnesota Twins jersey and claiming to have been a close friend of Simonett’s since their early teen years, Michael Bailey did what he said he always does when he attends shows featuring members of Trampled by Turtles — buy the band a round of their favorite Irish whiskey.
Nothing like a jolt of Jameson on a Dead Man Winter’s night. Behind Young’s fiery fiddle licks, they drove “Nicotine” to soaring heights, then returned for three encores, including “Bloodshot Eyes” off Palomino and an amped-up cover of Dylan’s “Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You.”
The cool and calm quintet probably already knows that singing sorrowful ballads won’t necessarily drive one to drink — or make fearless fans forget Trampled by Turtles. If anything, this night just might teach the toast of Larimer Lounge lizards that those types of tunes will be a much harder sell for a party crowd that wants it fast and furious.
Still, applaud a courageous Simonett for trying. As long as the heart of the band keeps ticking, it would be a shame for him to pull the plug on Dead Man Winter.
Concert photos by Michel Bialas. See more of Trampled by Turtles at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival and Dead Man Winter in Denver.
For a limited time, download Dead Man Winter’s “Nicotine”: