On a day warm enough to break out his Retribution Gospel Choir T-shirt and soak up the sun on a bar patio last week, Dave Simonett seemed surprisingly unfazed that the June-like temperatures were sure to bog down his band's first April gig.
He and the other members of Trampled by Turtles were headed up to Lutsen ski resort the following night.
"There probably won't be any snow, but we'll still have a good time," he said, beaming with the confidence that surrounds Turtlesville nowadays.
Even as their songs have turned more sour and ragged, and even as the amount of road work the band puts in has turned more rugged, Trampled by Turtles remain some of the happiest players you're liable to come across. Getting to play two CD-release shows at First Avenue -- as the all-acoustic quintet is doing Friday and Saturday -- gives any Minnesota band reason to cheer.
There's a lot more momentum than that, though. Their new album, "Palomino," is TBT's first with a widespread national reach, via RED Distribution. By all accounts, they earned an ecstatic reception at South by Southwest last month. They reportedly have been making similar first impressions at their many festival gigs of late.
Simonett is the smiling face of this chipper clan. The sandy-blond, blue-eyed, infallibly easygoing singer appears like a natural ringleader next to the other guys' lumberjack looks, but he also writes all of the TBT songs that have lyrics (about three-quarters of them). And he's the one Turtle who moved to Minneapolis, while the rest of the original band stays away from the Twin Cities limelight in Duluth, where they formed only seven years ago.
It looked as if TBT actually splintered over the past year. Simonett started the electric solo project Dead Man Winter with Turtles bassist Tim Saxhaug's help. Picker Dave Carroll often played with Two Many Banjos. Mandolinist Erik Berry did some soloing. And violinist Ryan Young (who joined in 2007) continued gigging with the Turtles' fellow neo-bluegrass peers Pert Near Sandstone.
From the sounds of it, though, the Turtles are as unified as ever. "Palomino" certainly suggests this, and so did Simonett.
"We still love playing together and are excited by it," he said. "I think having our other little projects helped a lot. It gave us time away, and adds a nice perspective."
The Turtles are operating on such a fine-tuned level that they were able to record "Palomino" on the fly in a variety of locations and still make a cohesive album. They dropped into studios owned by pals Rich Mattson, Erik Koskinen and Chad Weis. They even wound up laying one track ("Gasoline") in a dumpy hotel room on a rainy day in Washington, D.C.
"The plan was to just get rough, raw demos of new songs as they popped up," Simonett explained. "We took a long break and planned to go back in the studio and do a more formal session, but when we looked back on those original recordings, we really liked 'em a lot. It comes down to trying to find the right scenario for certain songs, and we found them in different places."
After experimenting with electric guitars and even drums on the 2007 album "Trouble" -- a creative whim Simonett now follows in Dead Man Winter -- the Turtles pretty well cemented their formula on the 2008 record, "Duluth," balancing bullet-train rapid instrumental jams with Simonett's slower, down-and-out songs. The same fast/slow/fast game plan defines their live shows.
When a heckler good-naturedly yelled, "Play faster, why don't ya?" at the band's SXSW gig last month, he was immediately made the fool as the quintet slid from one of its high-revving instrumentals into the skidmark-like "Separate," an especially miserable breakup song that may rank as Simonett's finest to date -- one the Band might have recorded with ample soul, but this band handles with surprising grace. There are several similar rugged gems on the disc, including the hangoverly "Bloodshot Eyes" and "New Orleans."
Married and settled in his personal life, Simonett said he wrote a lot of these songs "while watching someone I know and care about, in one way or another, go through something that's incredibly difficult, and having this helpless feeling that I can't help out."
Pretty heavy stuff for such an upbeat band. In Turtlesville, this is where you cue the strings and pick up the tempo.Koza goes Rogue
He's working under a new moniker and has an ambitious new plan to issue one album over each of the next four seasons. But the best thing that can be said about Chris Koza's latest CD, "Crater Lake," is that it's mostly more of the same.
The Oregon transplant's first release under his band's new name, Rogue Valley, maintains the sophisticated, string- and organ-laden, harmonious indie-pop brand that caught on with his 2004 debut. Lyrically, the new collection reads like an Outside magazine article, with songs about moonlight, rivers, stargazing and West Coast drives. You're gonna swoon -- it's that kind of dreamy material.
Rogue Valley is throwing a special release party Saturday at St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theater (8 p.m., $25), with guests including Jeremy Messersmith, JoAnna James and a marching band (no doubt on tap for the grandiose new track "Red River of the North").'Sunrise' on the Gleam
A band that never pretended to have its act perfectly together -- some of its first gigs were in a chicken coop, after all -- Chisago County country-rock trio the Gleam is finally back from a long lull with a new drummer named Proudfoot and a new CD called "Sunrise." You'll realize how much you missed these authentic yahoos by the time frontman Zachary Johns warbles out, "Still the same all summer long," in the opening track "Away Like a Song." There are actually some refined touches such as pedal-steel in the downer tracks "Damn City Lights" and "Dead Boyfriend," but it's still the same Gleam. Release party is Saturday at Sauce with the Rockford Mules and Martin Devaney (9 p.m., $5).Random mix
Former First Ave manager and DEMO nonprofit founder Steve McClellan has been trying to bring more live music to downtown St. Paul for several years now, but his dreams of doing it in a refurbished Palace Theater have been stalled. He's going ahead and using the theater's name anyway at a downtown sports bar, creating a venue-within-a-venue called the Palace Theater at Wild Times Bar, 33 W. 7th St. The shows are always free and start around 8 p.m. Friday's lineup features the Mad Ripple and St. Dominic's Trio. Saturdays feature the super-fresh-blood acts that DEMO supports. ...
With its second album for Red House Records due April 20, Storyhill will take to the Guthrie Theater's proscenium stage for a CD-release concert April 17 (the $20 tickets are on sale now). The acoustic duo once again enlisted Dan Wilson to produce the record, "Shade of the Trees." ... The Birthday Suits returned home from SXSW and an East Coast tour in time to unleash their second album, "The Minnesota: Mouth to Mouth," recorded with Jacques Wait with guest vocals by Arzu and Ouija Radio's Christy Hunt. ...
Even after seeing a flood of exciting new buzz bands over the past week and a half, nothing topped listening to the down-homey Roe Family Singers on the patio outside Sea Salt restaurant in Minnehaha Park last Saturday. Here's hoping for more outdoor music gigs ASAP. Other bands could also take a cue from the Roe singers' ingenious trick of turning tip-jar-feeding into a sport for 2 1/2-year-olds.
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