By Jeff Modzelewski
If there’s one thing that Trampled By Turtles is known for it’s bringing raw, pure, and infectious energy and emotion to their live performances. They switch between slow, plodding dirges to blistering anthems without losing the core of who they are or their unique place in the modern bluegrass and folk universe. They’ve been doing it for years on their albums and in their live shows, and their recent set at the House of Blues in Cleveland was no exception. Trampled by Turtles knows how to bring in a crowd and bring them through an almost transformative experience, and they did it exceptionally well at this show.
The band kicked things off at a slow pace with “Methodism in Middle America.” It’s not an easy thing to build energy into a set when starting off with a song this dark and slow, but it also avoids taking the “easy way out” by simply kicking off the set at full speed. There are plenty of things that set this band apart, one of which is the use of both an electric bass and a cello in a folk/bluegrass band, but it’s that additional string component and the additional bass that it brings that allows the band to put so much power into these slower songs. The did a complete 180 by bringing out the blazing “Feet and Bones” to follow up. The rest of the early part of the set followed a similar pattern. Sing-along options like the emotional plea “The Middle” were interspersed with more classic bluegrass style songs like “Victory” and “Help Yourself.” One thing that the band often doesn’t get a lot of credit for is their pure picking ability, but these songs really let guys like banjoist Dave Carroll or fiddler Ryan Young stand out.
The highlight for me was the run of “Duluth,” “Wait So Long,” “Winners,” and “Kelly’s Bar.” These are some of my favorite Trampled By Turtles songs, each represents a different facet of who the band is. “Duluth” is an ode to their home, which is a theme echoed in both “Winners” and “Kelly’s Bar.” “Wait So Long” is one of the most manic songs that the band has, and they turn up the energy level live, and “Kelly’s Bar” matches that energy. By the time this portion of the set came around the crowd was fully warmed up and they were able to completely soak up what the band was putting out.
The band used the second half of the set to highlight some more of their best known material, with a handful of surprises sprinkled in. The whole venue was dancing to songs like “Codeine” and “Annihilate,” and I certainly enjoyed a mandolin-heavy version of “Empire” being put into the mix. The main set closed out the way it started, with a slow, downtempo tune, this time “Midnight On The Interstate.” The band kicked off the encore with a rare cover of Radiohead’s “Fake Plastic Trees” before ending the night with the instrumental “Truck.” It would be a challenge for any player to move between the folky version of “Fake Plastic Trees” and immediately drop into the speed and skill required for “Truck,” but, again, Trampled by Turtles made the transition seemingly with ease.
I’ve seen Trampled by Turtles in a variety of festival settings, and I was glad to finally catch a headlining show from the band. I love what they bring to a festival, since they’re always just a little outside of the box of whatever festival they’re at. But it was great to see them in their own element, with their own fanbase, doing their own show. The band excels in a variety of different ways and puts their own unique stamp on the style of music that they play. I’m always looking forward to seeing what they come up with next.