Minnesota-based six piece Trampled By Turtles may be best known in the US, but their quirky take on bluegrass is spreading further afield, and spreading fast. At least, they’ve filled the not inconsiderable space of the Electric Ballroom for this show as part of the London Roots Festival with apparent ease. Appearing on stage at the unusually early hour of 8:15pm, it’s immediately clear that they’re already a finely honed machine, as well rehearsed as a Special Forces unit about going into battle. Set up side by side at the very front of the stage, the sound of mandolin, violin, banjo, guitar, acoustic bass and double bass all blend into one seamless, momentum-filled force of nature.
The walls of this historic venue are covered in former concert posters featuring punk legends like The Ramones, Talking Heads and The Fall, and there’s a definitively punky edge to Trampled By Turtles too, especially when they switch up through the gears and hit full speed. Close your eyes and you could almost imagine Joe Strummer channeling the work of Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan and reinventing it as something angrier and more frenetic. The sentiments of ‘I Went To Hollywood’, for instance, a tale of migration and the gap between the American dream and its more prosaic reality, echo Guthrie’s classic ode to Californian disappointment, ‘Do Re Mi’.
But that’s only part of the story of their appeal. Ryan Young’s violin playing is a highlight, resembling the melancholy of John Cale at times; at others more Hendrix-like, sending his fiddle through distortion pedals to make it sound more like a plane coming in to land than a string instrument. While bluegrass is central to their offering, they don’t stick to its template religiously. There are a few forays into more Irish sounding folk, like The Waterboys with the close harmonies of The Allman Brothers or Crosby, Stills & Nash, and these provide valuable relief.
Their audience doesn’t offer up its adoration immediately. There are times earlier on in the gig, especially during the quieter numbers, that the post-work Friday night chatter of the crowd threatens to overwhelm them. But they seem un-fazed, and as the drinks flow and the set proceeds, the chatter turns to cheering and the standing to dancing. They save their best-known anthem, ‘Wait So Long’, for the final slot in the main set. Cue something approaching pandemonium, complete with plastic beer glasses thrown in the air and whatever the bluegrass equivalent of a moshpit is quickly developing near the front.
In terms of dazzling technicality and virtuosity, Trampled By Turtles are almost peerless in their field. They still have work to do on their showbiz skills. They don’t say much to the crowd aside from the real basics and their decision to alternate between fast and slow songs all evening lends proceedings a slightly wonky dynamic. But even so, they’re still good, and given a few tweaks and a bit of time – which, after all, is on their side at the moment – they could be genuinely great.
A really polished and self-assured support slot was provided by Ferris and Sylvester (Issy and Archie). With barely two years of working together, they have a truly classy sound, have been identified as “Need To Know’ by no less than Rolling Stone, and show influences (or at least, contemporary shared musical tropes) such as The Shires and Ward Thomas at their smoother end, and Vinegar Joe and Heart at the ballsier bluesier end. It’s fine stuff, polished harmonised vocals a feature, as are the London influences in several of their tracks – the duo are long term South Londoners. Poignant lyrics too on the likes of ‘London Blues’, ‘Sickness’ and ‘Flying Visit’. Currently touring prolifically as support to various acts, they are well worth checking out.
AUK writer David Chalfen provided the words on Ferris & Sylvester. Many thanks to Luca Viola for the photographs.