Folk seems to have become the flavor of the month in popular music—from the down-and-out anthems of The Lumineers to the Flock of Seagulls coiffed men that started it all, Mumford and Sons. The genre of folk seems to have been squelched of novelty to make room for a slew of unremarkable string bands. Trampled by Turtles is the raucous outlier in this banjo-banging conundrum. The Midwest quintet took to the stage of The Vic Theatre to pump out a viciously wrenching set to a sold-out crowd.
Carl Broemel of My Morning Jacket fame began the night with guzzling layers of guitar sieved through his impressive array of pedals. As his set began to wane, he called for reinforcements from a backing band, allowing his effortless vocals to truly take flight. Broemel looked every bit the minstrel as his long hair limped across his face as he paid dues at lap guitar during “Carried Away.” The set was capped with a lighthearted cover of “Lollipop,” an interpretation barren of all schmaltz as he spread harmony upon harmony. As he traipsed offstage, Broemel triumphantly thrust his guitar in the air, proving that one man can be remarkable in the wake of group dynamic crutches and stacked lineups crumbling beneath the weight of their own egos.
Trampled by Turtles’ set rolled in from a fleeting rendition of their breakout hit “Alone;” layers of guitar and banjo rang uncomfortably strong and overwhelmed the vocals. Singer Dave Simonett seemed to have been settling into comfort with restrained vocals introducing the first chorus. Come around the song’s wrenching bridge, the stalwart quartet crackled with newfound energy and thumped in with urgency.
TBT wasted no time in maintaining momentum with a fiddle ripping solo by former speed metal drummer Ryan Young. Simonett’s flurry of acoustic melodies sprung “Help You” to vibrant new life. The song progressed with a brief but impressive mandolin solo, as TBT forfeited little nuggets of musicianship to keep the crowd hungry and the band validated. Combating the intimacy of the music was the band members’ isolation from one another, facing wayward directions in a stilted firing line and completely absorbed in their own parts. Though instead of a violent, metallic clang, every part melded together in some kind of sonic predestination, like some sort of musical Calvinism.
With zesty twang and bluegrass conventions running rampant, TBT embraced their country roots much more tightly than their contemporaries. This embracement was especially evident in winding lap guitar lines alternating between tributaries of Townes Van Zandt simplicity and Neil Young dynamism.
The show was stingily sprinkled with crowd interaction. Save for the obligatory “thanks” and “you’re fantastic” praises to audience, TBT was more concerned with delivering each and every song with conviction and passionate execution. After clocking in some generic gratitude, each instrument gradually slid into “Separate” with tact, avoiding that dreaded metallic clang. The textural outbreak continued with wrist-cracking guitar work all throughout stomp-the-barnyard tune “Walt Whitman.”
The string fraying exchange between fiddle and mandolin during “Sorry” provided the perfect amount of confrontation to keep the audience engrossed in the complex raff. The screeches and sobs Ryan Young and Erik Berry managed to summon from their instruments was inhuman, sounding more broken and forelorn than the most star-crossed Dickensian character. Simonett’s occasional, yearning whinnies are authentic that occasional mumbles deserved amnesty in his wrenching deliveries. Whoops escaped from audience members’ excitable, thawing throats as the band erupted in an avalanche of strings during a stirring instrumental break that flaunted each of the members’ undeniable talents, from sawmill fiddle chops to vigorous vocal pacing.
Upon the primal attack into “Wait So Long,” it seemed as if Chicagoans had unearthed their inner ruffian from beneath caked layers of urbanite stoicism and temperature-driven bitterness. Chirpy whistles and guttural whoops traveled through the theater as a total stampede ensued. The fluttery riff and adrenaline-soaked delivery further fueled the electricity charging the room as Simonett and the crowd proclaimed in a jumbled unison, “Then you take up hope at the politicians/Nothing happens in this burnt out town anymore,” with nearly unsettling conviction.The audience’s franticness reached an all-time high; head banging and folk never seemed like such an appropriate combination until Simonett spat each lyric with rootsy panache.
Trampled by Turtles were not showmen in the common vein of theatricality, but through their ineffable ability to build tension with something as simple as the inflection of a chord or the croak of voice. The audience was completely entranced with this crestfallen, lovelorn world they were so embroiled in by the end of the 90-minute set, so much that they were hard-fought to bid farewell. Trampled by Turtles proved that they aren’t just some dudes with weathered instruments and a Thoreauian upbringing; they are in fact part bayou bluegrass, some jam band, distinctly American, and most importantly, all heart.