Blue Grass and Plaid Shirts
Trampled by Turtles offered plenty of high-speed picking and strumming.
Thirteen months after their sold-out show at the Pabst, indie folk and bluegrass band Trampled by Turtles returned to Milwaukee for an enjoyable night filled with plaid shirts, beards, and New Years-themed party hats. Called “Midwest Bluegrass Royalty” by National Public Radio, and with similarities to other neo-folk groups such as Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers, Trampled by Turtles will soon celebrate its 11th anniversary. The quintet from Duluth, MN, has had successful recent appearances at Coachella and Stagecoach, and their 2012 album “Stars and Satellites” broke the Top 40. This band’s New Year’s Eve show at the Riverside Theater helped a large and lively crowd ring in 2014 with bluegrass fervor.
Opener band, PHOX, hailing from not-so-distant Baraboo, WI, provided a calm and enjoyable introduction to the night’s program. The indie pop sextet has been a breakout Wisconsin music success in 2013, having made appearances at festivals such as South by Southwest and Lollapalooza. In concert, the group regularly juggled instruments, providing all of the sounds you’d hear in a studio recording without the use of session musicians or pre-recorded tracks. Flugelhorn, banjo, slide whistle, flute, you name the instrument, they probably had one on stage. On occasion it proved to be too much to handle for the sound engineer, as charming and quirky lead singer Monica Martin’s solid vocals sometimes got buried in the mix. The crowd was both talkative and appreciative during the set, perhaps fitting for the almost-ambient nature of the music. If you closed your eyes, you could picture yourself in a cozy café, albeit with a couple thousand of your closest friends. PHOX is a band to watch in 2014, with a new album planned for the next year.
Trampled by Turtles started with a soothing rendition of the traditional folk song “Oh, Shenandoah,” providing a seamless transition from the previous act, before launching into an energetic “Codeine” off their second album “Blue Sky and the Devil,” much to the audience’s delight. The group’s set drew from almost all of their six studio albums (and dropped hints of a new album in the works), from country ballads to uptempo numbers with such rapid-fire strumming and picking that even the most hardened speed-metal musician would throw the horns in approval. Indeed, the crowd lived and died by the faster numbers, responding well to the peaks of “Truck” and “Walt Whitman” while seemingly less interested in the valleys of the group’s calmer moments. Nevertheless, the percussion-less fivesome, led by lead-singer Dave Simonett, boasted plenty of energy, filling a cavernous Riverside with technically top-notch instrumentation and joyous and accomplished vocal harmonies. Overall the show was satisfying and easily accessible to those less familiar with the alt country world, but it did grow long and repetitive. That may be because of the band’s strict adherence to its bluegrass roots and a resistance to incorporating elements of other genres into the music.
As 2013 waned and the countdown hit midnight, Tramped by Turtles came back out on stage after a short relief by the MC to play the New Year’s staple “Auld Lang Syne” followed by the band’s most famous hit, “Wait So Long”, accompanied by a flurry of confetti and balloons. The ecstatic audience cheered until it got an encore, a gratifying three-song cap to the concert, which ended around 12:30, leaving plenty of hours left to celebrate the snowy New Year.