In Duluth, you can’t beat being Trampled by Turtles

John Gilbert

Trampled by Turtles dazzled an estimated 12,000 fans at Bayfront Saturday. From left, Eric Berry, mandolin; Ryan Young, fiddle; Dave Carroll, banjo; Dave Simonett, guitar and lead vocals; Tim Saxhaug, bass; and Eamonn McLain, cello. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Trampled by Turtles dazzled an estimated 12,000 fans at Bayfront Saturday. From left, Eric Berry, mandolin; Ryan Young, fiddle; Dave Carroll, banjo; Dave Simonett, guitar and lead vocals; Tim Saxhaug, bass; and Eamonn McLain, cello. Photo credit: John Gilbert

Our family loves sports events, even when the events aren’t truly sports. Sports, after all, are really just entertainment, and there are a lot of alternative things that are entertaining and captivate our family’s interest.
Last weekend we had two of the biggest and most riveting events in Duluth on the same weekend, in fact mostly on the same day.
If you could round up the greatest UMD hockey teams in history for a reunion game, it would be no more compelling than the young men who formed the incredible speed-rock-blues musical outfit while attending UMD, and they called themselves Trampled by Turtles. Great name, and one of the most entertaining bands you could ever put together.

Our younger son, Jeff, got to know the whole group when he attended Bemidji State University in the days the band was just organizing and played up there. Whenever they play and he’s close, he’s invited to join them as if he was a member, or at least a witness to their beginning.
So a year or so passed before Joan and I saw the band, at the State Fair Bandshell in a free concert that filled the place. They were fantastic. It seemed incredible that they met and started openm-miking together while attending UMD. A few months later, we saw the band at Clyde Iron, and we were hooked. We went to see them whenever and wherever they played. They had a half-dozen CDs out by then, and played some shows in Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland, where Jeff, who lives in Bellingham, Washington, could get to the shows and renew acquaintances. They appeared on the David Letterman Show a couple of times, attracting more national attention, and their high-speed mingling of fiddle, mandolin, banjo, bass, and guitar, put together some thrilling arrays of intricate artistry, always managing to come together and end on the same not. Dave Simonett, lead singer and song-writer, wrote some poignant lines and the group fit the words into the always changing band’s creativity, with harmony as good as their musicianship, which either surprised or endeared audiences, entertained them for certain.

Then suddenly, a year ago, they said they were going to stop performing for a year. A few showed up occasionally with other Duluth area bands in the past year. Bands, particularly sizzling hot bands, don’t just take year-long breaks, but Simonett said he needed the time away from the constant travel-play-rehearse-write grind to let some private issues resolve themselves. We could understand. We just feared they might never reunite.

Well, they did reunite. They played a surprise show at Pizza Luce during Homegrown Music Festival, then they released a new CD — Life is Better on the Road. Prophetic, I must say. They had scattered, with Simonett living in the Twin Cites, Banjo Dave Carroll moving to the Colorado mountains, bass player Tim Saxhaug moving from Duluth to his hometown of Grand Rapids, mandolin player Erik Berry staying at home on his farm northeast of Duluth, and fiddle player Ryan Young, I think, also in the Twin Cities. They’ve also added cello player Eamonn McLain, who made such a big impression on Alone, and Midnight on the Interstate, two of the numerous songs that either directly or subtly connect to Duluth, often pointing to the solitude of the harsh winters in a way that makes them seem more agreeable.

When they came together last Saturday at Bayfront Festival Park, we knew it would be a great show. Jeff had gotten off work early to drive to Vancouver when they played there a week earlier, and his scouting report was simpy: “Better than ever.”
He was right. At Bayfront, they were limited to selling 10,000 tickets, and they filled that a couple days before the show. There were people at Bayfront of all ages, shapes, sizes, and genders, joined by their devotion to this unique Duluth sound. The new songs were refined and impressive, and the old songs were refined and, if possible, improved. Favorites? I have mine, but it’d be impossible to pick TBT’s worst songs, and if you could, they’d still be pretty good.

I got hold of Tim Saxhaug a couple days later, and he said the guys were taking a few days off, then heading for the East Coast, where they’ll perform in North Carolina, Virginia, and Louisville, then they head for Colorado where they will be part of a big annual show at Red Rock, in the mountains just west of Denver.

No word yet on when they might return to Duluth, although Simonett said at the show that they play all over the country, and world, and Duluth is their favorite city to play in. Maybe that’s how perfect the 80-degree evening was, or maybe it was to pay homage to the reverent crowd. Probably he meant it. Trampled by Turtles doesn’t owe anything to Duluth, and if they did, they repay it every time they show up to perform.

Air Force F-16C, afterburner aglow, heads for the Wild Blue Yonder. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Air Force F-16C, afterburner aglow, heads for the Wild Blue Yonder. Photo credit: John Gilbert
All six members of the Thunderbirds contrasted with the deep blue sky. Photo credit: John Gilbert
All six members of the Thunderbirds contrasted with the deep blue sky. Photo credit: John Gilbert

Thunderbirds put on spectacular weekend

Saturday was a long, hot one for my wife, Joan, and me, plus our older son, Jack, who came up for a classic doubleheader. Not only were we booked to attend the Trampled by Turtles show at Bayfront — with an impressive array of opening acts — but we started out the day at the Duluth International Airport, in the throng that had crowded into the place for the airshow.

The various aerobatic flyers and sky-divers put on a good show, and getting up-close looks at a B-25 World War II bomber, and watching the immaculate pair of WWII fighters — a Mustang and a Corsair — was worth the trip and several hours broiling under the hot sun.
But the main attraction lived up to its billing. The U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds, a well-trained group of elite Air Force pilots, put their six spectacular F-16C jet fighters into assorted formations, starting out with a four-abreast takeoff. The close formations took your breath away, and when they hit the afterburner and climb straight up into the sky, even all alone, they keep you breathless. One of the top maneuvers is four F-16s roaring over the airstrip then abruptly going straight up, trailing plumes of white trailers; at the top, the four all peel off and circle outwardly, like a four-flowered plant, each in a different direction. Right then, a fifth F-16C rises straight up through the white smoke and contiues straight up, in recurring corkscrew trailing of his own.

My favorite is when a four or five plane formation flies low and tight over the airstrip, then arcs straight up, commanding everyone’s attention, when suddenly an ear-shattering sound shocks you into realizing a fifth plane has just come over much lower and louder, just to make sure you’re paying attention.

These pilots are the best our nation can train, with the Navy’s Blue Angels similarly prepared, and they fly those supersonic jets with the same precision as Formula 1 race drivers might negotiate getting through extreme congestion on a Grand Prix track. The similarity to the tight cockpit and how close the pilot is to the nose-cone of the plane makes that analogy realistic.

People become pilots, and the best make it in the Air Force. And the best of those might try out and make the Thunderbirds team. If they inspire some young men to pursue careers in the Air Force — well, it’s better than politics. And far more exciting for them, and entertaining for us. And they can’t be bought off or influenced by some corporation.

And then, thoroughly drained, we went to Bayfront Festival Park for Duluth’s concert of the year.

One of the Thunderbirds delicately touched down, outlined by the raised canopy of a back-up F-16C. Photo credit: John Gilbert
One of the Thunderbirds delicately touched down, outlined by the raised canopy of a back-up F-16C. Photo credit: John Gilbert
On the underside of the F-16s, the outline of Thunderbirds identify who you’re watching. Photo credit: John Gilbert
On the underside of the F-16s, the outline of Thunderbirds identify who you’re watching. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Among the vintage planes on display, a Navy Corsair and Air Force P-51 Mustang flew together.  Photo credit: John Gilbert
Among the vintage planes on display, a Navy Corsair and Air Force P-51 Mustang flew together. Photo credit: John Gilbert