One of Minnesota's best exports is undoubtedly bluegrass, as everyone in attendance at the Trampled by Turtles concert at the High Noon Saloon Wednesday night soon discovered.
They played to a large, talkative crowd made up of a combination of the tie-dyed die-hards (some following the band all the way from Duluth), sorority girls and High Noon's built-in audience of Capital Square professionals and hangers-on of the local music scene.
Opener Pert Near Sandstone, from the Twin Cities, started the night off jumping, with traditional bluegrass and old-time songs like "Shady Grove" and "Old Joe Clark," played with a steady upright bass beat and some fast-paced fiddle heroics by Ryan Young, who is playing with Trampled by Turtles on this tour. The band all leaned in to the single microphone on stage, providing harmony to lead singer's yelping, crackling voice. These were no deadpan traditionalists, however, and they slid a cover of the Beatles' "I Am The Walrus" into their energetic, well-received set.
The energy tapered off a bit when the Madison-based Blueheels got on stage, playing a set of mid-tempo, country-rock songs — a sound that would have been completely forgettable if not for all of their strange quirks. The singer had a shape-shifting voice that veered wildly from a Bob Dylan cadence — which, on a song briefly evoking "Maggie's Farm," carried with it clever insights, like, "If you don't want to get caught telling the truth/ You should have been telling lies" — to a slow, affected southern twang, to (of all places) a high-pitched Colin Meloy nasality. Frequent shoutouts to Madison and strange "wah-wah" vocals coming at the end of a jam kept things weirdly interesting, though I imagine few were too disappointed when it ended.
After setting up their instruments themselves (no roadies for these down-to-earth reptiles), and each member of the band firmly planted in their chairs (they perform sitting down the entire set), rhythm guitarist and lead vocalist Dave Simonett greeted the audience with a simple, "Good evening folks," before kicking into their raucous set.
Trampled By Turtles' sound is tight, honed by their incessant touring on the jam band circuit, and their expert musicianship allows two guitars, a mandolin, fiddle and a banjo to all be mixed equally without the whole thing turning into a shambling mess. Even better is their catchy, melodic harmonies that are just rough enough to stay authentic. By their second song — a stomping instrumental that literally sent the bow hairs flying when the strings on Young's bow broke — the crowd was whipped up in a frenzy. This energy stayed ramped up the way to the end of their first set, capped of by an extended Irish instrumental jam that had the crowd breaking out in jigs.
Although they slowed the pace (relatively) down for songs like "Hallelujah," their relentless tempos and rapid-fire finger picking often made the songs blend into one another, and the entire set seemed more like an organic progression than performances of individual songs. Because of this, the entire set stood out as a blur of positive energy, and only the race of the deadline kept me away from the Turtles' second set.