Coming just two days after banjo great Ralph Stanley’s departure from this earth, Trampled by Turtles’ show at the Crystal Bay Club on Saturday night unfolded like a rocking eulogy for the beloved elder, who was one of the Turtles’ acknowledged musical inspirations. The show sold out days earlier, leaving the Crown Room packed to its new, expanded capacity with avid fans awaiting the masterful musicians hailing from Duluth, Minnesota.
But first, chops were licked and whistles wetted to the feisty, speed-defying notes of Reno’s Actors Killed Lincoln. Yes, that’s the name of the band. Sounding like a cross between Devil Makes Three and the fire of the original Pogues, Actors Killed Lincoln called up a boisterous mood, playing to the ebullient crowd with a Celtic whirligig opening, followed by punky tunes with a jazzy twist. Keeping a hard-rock vein flowing, more Celtic, then Arabian-toned melodies, and a kind of Bolero-esque warp-speed gypsy punk, rounded out their set. Lively and enlivening, these three fellows definitely set the stage for the flying fingers to come.
Trampled by Turtles moseyed on stage with a laconic, “Hey Tahoe!” tossed to an ecstatic crowd, who roared their approval from the opening notes of one of the band’s signature songs, “Victory.” The whole room seemed poised on lead singer, harmonica and guitar player Dave Simonett’s high, lonesome crooning: “All of us lonely…it ain’t no sin….” From that moment on, almost two full hours of frenzied jams, sweet lyrical ballads, and crowd-pleasing favorites unfolded and caught fire, drawn from several of the band’s eight albums to date. The faithful crowded up front, close to the stage, hanging on every note (if that was even possible, so many notes do these boys disperse!), while the rest of the packed room swayed in a methodical unison (or jumped and shouted enthusiastically) to the driving set the band delivered.
The mandolin and fiddle players, Erik Berry and Ryan Young, immediately established themselves as lead players, exchanging licks with Simonett in blistering, lightning-fast duets and impeccably timed, furiously delivered solos that crept up and down fret boards and belied the mystery of fingers moving faster than the speed of sound. Supported in full banjo splendor by Dave Carroll, solid and steady, and Tim Saxhaug on an (amplified) acoustic bass guitar, as well as plucky cello playing and back-up vocals from Eamonn McClain, the boys moved as one, a musical entity sweetly and inextricably entangled within itself, punctuated by Simonett’s twangy rustic vocals and full harmonies from the others backing him up.
Slowing things down a bit every few songs, the band plucked through mesmerizing instrumental harmonies, and sang heartfelt lyrics that captured the pain and glory of love, of life on the road, of learning, only to then flutter and speed off like hummingbird wings in flight. Young’s fiddle bow literally blurred to the naked eye at times, so fast did it flourish and swim across his strings. Berry’s mandolin reached the same lightning speeds, fingers flying, as he visibly drew flurries of arpeggios and impossible notes from his rapidly vibrating strings. Described by their producer as riding “the chaotic edge of stringed oblivion,” this was indeed the case all evening long, as the floorboards of the Crown Room rocked, and the river of tempestuous, delightful music flowed.
The crowd reflected awe-filled reverie at each note and rhythmic shift the band revealed. The chemistry of this band has oft been cited as the mainstay behind their magnetic and time-defying feats of stringed wizardry, and indeed, seeing them live all but explains the phenomena that Trampled by Turtles is. You watch it unfolding before you very eyes, your ears hear and process the prodigious complexity of the musical assemblage, yet still it seems humanly impossible, and therefore ecstatically pleasing and satisfying beyond belief. Unbelievable: sheer magic.
Friends from Duluth were in the crowd, which seemed a special moment for the band, visiting us here in North Lake Tahoe. So they wrapped up the night with a song about Duluth, a beautiful sweet and slow number, followed by the favorite ballad “Alone,” which had the whole crowd swaying in appreciative pathos. The rowdier “Codeine” re-ignited fierce, incendiary jams between all, from Simonett’s furious leads, to mandolin, fiddle, and cello solos, with spot-on harmonies from all band members on the rousing chorus. A surprising song near the end of the set got everyone singing, a cover of the Grateful Dead’s “Touch of Grey,” closing out with the redemptive song “Midnight on the Interstate.”
Not to disappoint, the members of Trampled by Turtles came back onstage for an encore to a most appreciative (and roaring) crowd, finishing the night with a fun, playful anthem to good old summertime, “Swimming.“ (Google this song: you’ll go dive in the lake at your nearest opportunity, as soon as you’re done dancing around the kitchen!) And then, to leave us all singing and feeling the love and camaraderie of music and family and new friends, they ended the night with a fine cover of The Band’s “The Weight.” I’m pretty sure there was not a dry eye, nor a face that wasn’t beaming, in the whole place.