There was a time not long ago when banjo-wielding, suspender-wearing hipsters ushered in a wave of neo-folk. With just a hint of bluegrass and Americana, these acts reigned over festival stages for a short handful of years beginning around 2009, playing rustic sounding pop music for bros who would be happy listening to “Wagon Wheel” on repeat. Luckily, not all of the acts who became popular during the neo-folk wave sucked. Duluth, MN outfit Trampled by Turtles blew up during this time, but they stood out with their mélange of bluegrass, folk and alt-country that made it clear these guys had done their homework. The band has also endured and transcended the trend with music that has never fully felt like it was aimed for mainstream radio. On Friday, June 29 they paid a visit to the Oregon Zoo in Portland to give a loyal fanbase a taste of their new album Life is Good on the Open Road, which is easily one of their best. The album also marks a return for the band after taking a hiatus for the last few years, so naturally their fans were eager to hear them in Portland on Friday.
Before the stringed glory of Trampled by Turtles came a healthy dose of rock and roll courtesy of Rhode Island’s Deer Tick. The band has been touring constantly since the release of their fantastic double album Deer Tick Vol. 1 and Vol. 2. This was their third appearance in the Portland area in less than a year and a welcome energizer to kick off the evening. Leaning heavily on songs off their newest album(s), Deer Tick also dropped longtime favorites like “These Old Shoes” and “Mange”, giving the audience a reminder that they are one of the wildest yet tightest rock bands around.
Those who are bigger fans of Trampled by Turtles’ more bluegrass-heavy material were in luck on Friday as the band eschewed much of their poppier and slower material in favor of quick-paced jams. Songs off the band’s new album seemed to fit right in with material from fan favorite albums like Duluth and Palomino. Playing with unrelenting energy and speed for much of the set, the Turtles would go for a bluegrass gut punch with songs like “Codeine”, “Help You”, new song “Kelly’s Bar” (which fits right in as one of their best) and “Wait So Long”. The band members stretched out songs with rousing and lively fiddle, mandolin, banjo and guitar solos, keeping the crowd dancing the whole time. It seemed that as the show wore on the band only kept playing faster and rowdier, one of the rare acts that can match poignant vocals and lyrics with instrumental chops. The new songs blended right in and went over well with the audience. Songs like “Life is Good on the Open Road”, “The Middle”, “Thank You, John Steinbeck”, and “Annihilate” each felt like a blend of the band’s bluegrass roots and frontman and songwriter Dave Simonett’s work with his alt-country-folk project Dead Man Winter.
Watching the Turtles play, it was clear they never set out to be famous and over time that band has naturally distanced themselves from the neo-folk wave that undoubtedly brought them many new fans. In Portland it was clear that their hiatus had been a humbling experience and perhaps allowed them to go back to their roots as just a tight-knit group of musicians focused on the craft of songwriting. On Friday, everyone was happy to have Trampled by Turtles back on stage, and the band’s enthusiastic performance sent a signal that they may be entering a whole new chapter.