All words: Colin Wilhelm
All photos: Emily Cohen
A lazy writer might compare the speed with which Trampled by Turtles played on Friday night to NASCAR or the Dukes of Hazzard. But for you reader I’ll try to aim a little higher.
TBT, as they’re known by their fans, plays bluegrass like a speed metal band that’s been brainwashed by repeated views of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, minus Future Man. As the first part of their name would indicate, speed truly is their defining characteristic, and they exhibited it plenty of times Friday night at the 9:30 Club. Most songs seemed like an attempt to one up the other, often successfully. Often the sheer precision of each song or solo induced some disbelief; “Wait So Long”, one of their most popular tracks, featured breathtaking solos on fiddle and mandolin, a recurring theme throughout the night.
Neither negative criticism you expect of a band such as this, that they were a bit too indulgent in their soloing or repetitive in their songwriting, would have held true Friday night. They added some eclectism in the form of a decent amount of slower ballad songs or simply medium tempo ones, probably as much for the wellbeing of their hands as for musical taste.
After another of their more popular songs, “Codeine”, a love song to the painkiller that features a mandolin solo that feels as surprising as if a human being emerged out of the primordial soup of strings created by the rest of the band, they embarked on an excellent cover of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, one of two songs by The Band played in tribute to Levon Helm’s passing the day before. They also closed their encore with “The Weight” (which seems to be a staple for them), accompanied by openers These United States.
This has felt like a recurring theme within my last few reviews at the 9:30 Club, but musicians at least say they love playing there (and in D.C.). Maybe that’s as credible as a promise in campaign season, but they at least seem genuine when they say it, including Friday. “It’s only our second show here but it already feels like a homecoming,” said mandolinist Erik Berry.
These United States, or TUS while we’re into the whole brevity thing, has a local connection: despite hailing from Brooklyn and North Carolina they formed and were based in D.C. for years, and their debut album, “A Picture of the Three of Us at the Gates of the Garden of Eden” was mixed and mastered at Inner Ear Studios in Arlington. Unfortunately I only caught the last couple songs of their set (we’ve also written about them before), but what I saw left me with an impression of an Americana band worth exploring further.
They closed their set with members of TBT performing alongside them, and with another Helm tribute. It was a fitting and cathartic gesture for both bands to honor someone who they and many other bands owe a bit of inspiration to. “That was a great man we lost yesterday,” singer Jesse Elliot said as he introduced a rough around the edges but soulful rendition of “Rag Mama Rag”.