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Morphing beyond the bluegrass sound

BY REBECCA KOONS | FEBRUARY 25, 2010 7:30 AM

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Trampled By Turtles is more than first meets the ear and anything but formulaic.

Trying to tag the band with various genre labels proves to be futile, because the band has transcended the bluegrass/roots framework to morph into something of its own devising. Trampled By Turtles mixes traditional bluegrass with the influence of harder-edged rock bands such as Nirvana, Neil Young, and the Rolling Stones and does it free of electric instrumentation.

The quintet from Duluth, Minn., will perform at 9 p.m. today at the Yacht Club, 13 S. Linn St., with the Boomchucks opening the evening’s festivities. Admission is $10.

Trampled By Turtles began as a side project for Dave Simonett, Tim Saxhaug, Dave Carroll, Erik Berry, and Ryan Young. They were in separate bands that eventually fell to the wayside, and the focus began to hone in on the acoustic project.

“We had three shows booked before we even had a name,” Simonett said. “We wanted to have a name that wasn’t traditional-sounding, and when Erik came up with this one, it was the first name we didn’t all completely hate — so it stuck.”

In the band’s first performance in Iowa City, Trampled By Turtles’ reputation has preceded it. Scott Kading, who booked the band at the Yacht Club, said that plenty of tickets have been sold.

“We have been killing it with bluegrass here, and it is near the top in that genre in the Midwest,” Kading said. “We’re pretty sure [the guys] are going to surprise even their ardent fan base with some new songs.”

Difficult as it may be to cite anything specific, vocalist/guitarist Simonett knows that the environment that he and his bandmates grew up in has certainly had an effect on who they are as musicians and performers.

“I don’t think you can avoid it,” Simonett said. “The songs are original material, so from there, you can’t get past where you’re from.”

The band’s flair for individuality is something that has come about both intentionally and as a sort of natural progression. The desire to play acoustic songs grew into writing original material to put to a bluegrass-based instrumentation and beyond.

With four albums under its belt, the latest being 2008’s Duluth, Trampled By Turtles has its own methods of approaching songwriting and recording. Though it may vary slightly depending on circumstance, Simonett is usually charged with coming up with the initial melody, lyrics, and chord progression of a song. Every other member will then add his own part in that basic framework.

Unlike many bands or singers, Trampled By Turtles records most of an album’s content live. Aside from the typical finishing touches and fixes, a recording session may consist of all five members playing in a circle in front of several microphones. This, as Simonett described it, “without a net” technique has solidified the group’s honesty as musicians.

Trampled By Turtles treats its live performances much in the same fashion, with a presence all the band’s own. Because it is all-acoustic, featuring bass, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle as its weapons of choice, keeping a beat and energy equivalent to that of a kick drum or electric bass is demanding. As a result, every member plays both a rhythm and lead role.

The band members don’t make a conscious effort to get a crowd up and moving, but that seems to happen without much provocation. The energy Trampled By Turtles puts into its performance clearly translates to the audience.

“I hope they see us up there as being very excited about what we’re doing and honest musically,” Simonett said. “We’re just doing our own thing.”


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