Trampled By Turtles Ramble On

How would the story have turned out if the tortoise was actually faster than the hare? The progressive string quintet Trampled by Turtles (TxT) make a case for the alternate version. The band’s firebrand blend of bluegrass, punk and alt-country delivered with such speed and virtuosity suggests that the tortoise would’ve won the race either way.

While TxT refuse to label their style, they are nonetheless most associated with bluegrass. The classic Americana music is synonymous with Kentucky; however, the band hails from – of all places – Duluth, Minnesota.

Most of the members grew up in the area and played in punk and jam bands. Banjo player, Dave Carroll saw the band’s lead vocalist, guitarist and songwriter, Dave Simonett and mandolin player Erik Berry playing an acoustic set in a local bar. “I had visions of banjo parts that I could play along with and asked them if they wanted to play sometime. After a few rehearsals, and acquiring our bass player Tim Saxhaug, we knew we had something cool and wanted to pursue it more seriously,” Carroll says. After a few years they added their fiddle player Ryan Young and started touring regularly in 2003.

TxT have been compared to the indie-darlings, Mumford & Sons and The Avett Brothers. However the basis of their music comes more from rock than folk. Carrol explains, “We’re a non-traditional bluegrass band, or rather, a rock band with bluegrass instrumentation.” The group’s various influences range from Bob Dylan and The Beach Boys to The Rolling Stones and even Snoop Dogg.

Recently, the group brought their distinctive sound to the new downtown Phoenix, Arizona venue, The Crescent Ballroom. TxT took to the stage just as the capacity crowd became restless.

Without a drummer, the banjo and bass serve as the rhythm section. Carroll and Saxhaug expertly lay the foundation for the band’s set. Playing most of the tracks from their fifth album, Palomino, released about a year and a half ago, the band, lauded for its frenetic live shows, delivered on that reputation.

One of the standout songs of the night, “It’s a War,” allowed all of the musicians to showcase the best of what they do. Berry’s furious playing made his mandolin seem like a toy in his hands, Carroll worked his banjo with a surgeon’s precision, but it was Young who took his fiddle playing to another level. He shook feverishly from side-to-side and shredded like he was trying to take off into outer space.

The frenzy continued for more than an hour while punctuated by a few ballads—including two new songs from the forthcoming album scheduled for release this April. It was recorded in a cabin on the north shore of Lake Superior.

The expectant crowd seemed to exhale when TxT began playing “Victory.” Melancholy front man Simonett seldom cracked a smile. But what he lacked in outward glee, he more than made up for with a palpable longing and clear connection to his lyrics. He sang the forlorn second verse in “Victory,” with such conviction, he had the crowd in the palms of his hands, “It’s a broken heart babe, I know the sound / Feels like your hands, are nailed to the ground/ but it’ll pass just like everything else.”

The song drifted into jam-band territory, but it worked well for them as the fans rode the swell. Their extended jams demonstrate the sheer joy TxT has while playing live, drawing from, and giving back, energy from the audience.

Another highlight from the night at Crescent was when the entire room erupted after the first couple of chords of “Wait So Long.” It’s the closest song TxT has to a hit. The track is a jangly throwback of sorts, but perfectly showcases what the band does best. When the time comes for the song to break into a hoe-down, instead of the traditional timing and inflection, the band reveals their punk rock influence. The audience became a sea of bobbing heads and pogo dancers. The song begins, “I could never pretend that I don’t love you / You could never pretend that I’m your man,” and just gets more somber from there, but the music keeps rising. This uneasy juxtaposition of strings played at a furious pace and gut-punch lyrics help TxT stand out among their peers.

The encore song wasn’t a surprise since the buzz had been building most of the night in conversations heard around the venue. TxT cover the Pixies’ “Where is My Mind,” as a single for the worthy organization WhyHunger.

The band’s rearrangement of the song is a wonderfully weird postmodern string version of the soft/loud classic. When the crowd asked in unison, “Where is my mind?” it was both disconcerting and beautiful—which as it happens, also aptly describes this one-of-a-kind band with an unforgettable name.