After years of listening to their records, I’d somehow never seen a Trampled by Turtles show. Despite hailing from a similar Great Lakes domain (Duluth, Minn.), the band hasn’t stopped by Cleveland too often over the years. This isn’t surprising; not only did the band embark on a hiatus following 2014’s Wild Animals, but, who are we kidding?, a lot of bands seem to breeze past Cleveland and hit, e.g., Columbus, Pittsburgh and Detroit on their tours.
So it was very nice to see them in Cleveland last night, is what I’m saying.
The band opened with the haunting “Methodism in Middle America,” backlit in dark blue tones and standing mournfully beneath the all-seeing eyes of three owlish figures in the sky. The stage design at the House of Blues was terrific; the wall behind the musicians resembled the desert rock of Arizona, and the lighting never overwhelmed the mood.
The setlist, which the band varies night to night, touched on all corners of the canon. I don’t think it’s too dramatic to say that the past two Turtles records, Life is Good on the Open Road and Wild Animals, are among their very best. The band has tossed the warp-speed tempos of “Wait So Long” and other tunes into the back seat, allowing space for patient dynamics and more contemplative songwriting to move in and fill our heads. The quieter side of the Turtles really stole the show last night, I thought.
I’d told folks before the show that I was most eager to see mandolin player Erik Berry and fiddler Ryan Young. We posted up stage-right to take in the action, and they were just phenomenal. Each taking their turns as lead melody performer in various songs, those two guys provided much of the electricity throughout the show. A favorite moment came early in the show, with the spritely instrumental, “Good Land,” which gave the full spotlight treatment to Berry.
Young, meanwhile, delivered brilliant riffs and fills at a rapid clip, like his scratchy, quivering contribution to “Bloodshot Eyes” and his solo in “Valley.”
Of course, I don’t want to make it sound like this was all downtempo stuff. The band has a great knack for letting it rip. “Wait So Long” made a nice appearance early in the set, and the crowd got really into it. If you weren’t paying close attention, you might be inclined to think that banjo player Dave Carroll’s fingers sparked into flames as he was pickin’ through the night.
The band dedicated “Winners,” off Wild Animals, to their hometown, which was a nice gesture. “So much coming out there’s nothing going in / I could write it down but that would be a sin / And you know how I feel about sin,” singer Dave Simonett sang softly, reminding me, again, that sometimes it’s nice to slow things down for a while in this strange, strange world.