Eerie sounds were coming out of the fiddle, the base of which Ryan Young had lodged into his chest. With his elbow bobbing up and down furiously with the movement of the bow, he summoned tones from those four strings that sounded as if they were from a different instrument entirely, high-pitched whines and drones that unrolled at a dizzying pace. Young made his fiddle sing in a way that felt both innovative and ancient, and his masterful fiddle playing was only one highlight of many during Trampled By Turtles's excellent set last night at the Ogden Theatre. During a nearly two-hour show, the band easily flipped between old and new and seamlessly mixed traditional bluegrass cues with sounds and structures that felt groundbreaking.
Trampled By Turtles kicked off their two-night stint at the Ogden with "Widower's Heart," a slow waltz featuring pained vocals from guitarist Dave Simonett and understated accompaniment from the rest of the band. From there, the quintet went a little bit nuts as they broke into "Help You," a breakneck jam in 2/4 that featured acrobatic solos from Young, Dave Carroll on banjo and Erik Berry on mandolin, and followed with an even faster tune with even faster solos, before getting back to the slower material.
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That back-and-forth between punk rock tempos and bluegrass balladeering would continue for nearly two hours. Some moments of the performance felt like an old-fashioned hootenanny, while others were like an intimate campfire performance. Songs like "Alone" and "Wait So Long" were participatory anthems, tunes that had the whole theater singing along. Other songs such as the dark and ominous "Gasoline," felt like experimental pieces of some kind of bluegrass-noir.
Thanks to the consummate skill of the players, the outfit never failed in pulling off all of these different moods and textures. The stage dressing was minimal. Apart from some colorful backdrops of trees, a full moon and an abstract array of colors, the band carried the show without any help from fancy stagecraft.
Young was an absolute powerhouse on fiddle, coaxing a wide range of sounds and styles from the instrument. His playing was explosive and experimental on the faster reels and subtle and traditional on some of the slower ballads and waltzes. During one tune, he even had a mandolin slung around his back, flipping between jaw-dropping fiddle solos and paired melodies with Berry.
The rest of the band jumped between styles just as easily. Without a drummer, Dave Carroll served as the band's percussionist on the banjo, spelling out some of the faster rhythms with his pounding picking. When he wasn't swapping speedy solos with Young and Berry, he stayed in the background during the slower songs. Guitarist and vocalist Dave Simonett switched between roles as a crooning balladeer and a fast-picking rhythm player, serving as frontman and supporter with equal ease.
Tim Saxhaug offered his own distinctive voice on acoustic bass, an instrument that seems an odd fit for any bluegrass band. But the absence of a stand-up bass didn't hurt the sound -- each note from Saxhaug was clear and strong, and the instrument fit in to the mix perfectly. Indeed, the sound mix was well balanced through the entire set from Trampled by Turtles. Even at their most frenzied and furious moments, the soloists spelled out their melodies distinctly.
That clarity kept the crowd engaged at a show where the alcohol was flowing freely and where there was plenty of funky smells and smoke in the air. At a casual lyrical mention of going to the mountains during "Bloodshot Eyes" midway into the show, it felt as if the entire theater applauded in appreciation.
And the crowd was considerable. At the first strains of the group's opening tune, every corner of the theater seemed to fill up beyond capacity. Suddenly, it was impossible to find room to move on the floor in front of the stage, in the aisles or on the balcony. That kind of loyalty and energy hints at a pretty powerful show to come on Friday. If last night was only a warm-up from Trampled By Turtles, Friday's crowd may very well break open the Ogden at the seams.
The opening set from Honey Honey felt more like a featured show than a simple introduction. Despite some hiccups in the sound mix, the quartet delivered a powerful performance that mixed bluegrass and rock and roll, country and power pop.
Vocalist Suzanne Santo, who also served stints on fiddle and banjo, played a star role. She sang with feeling that was consistently heartbreaking and she played both her instruments with constant skill.
Guitarist Ben Jaffe also offered plenty of interesting sounds, switching between a full-bodied acoustic and several electrics. Though Santo apologized for some of the errors in sound (her banjo screamed with a good dose of feedback at one point), the damage was minimal. It didn't take away from the promise and power of the players, who could easily pull carry a headlining spot based on their skill.
Personal Bias: I'm steeped in old folk music and traditional bluegrass, so some of Trampled By Turtles' slower ballads hit my heartstrings pretty strongly.
Random Note: Male audience members just couldn't get over Honey Honey frontwoman Suzanne Santo. One dude yelled out a marriage proposal, and another asked in a scream if he could take her out to dinner.
By The Way: At one point, the five members of Trampled By Turtles took a break to take a drink together. Lined up in a row at the front of the stage, the band made a cheers to a "prosperous 2013."
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