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Trampled by Turtles and Jenny Lewis deliver in Duluth

Trampled by Turtles with special guest Jenny Lewis with Ross Thorn, at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth on July 8, 2023.
Trampled by Turtles with special guest Jenny Lewis with Ross Thorn, at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth on July 8, 2023. Keely Zynda for MPR

by Darby Ottoson and Keely Zynda

July 10, 2023

Whenever you watch a band in their hometown, the concert experience can feel almost familial, like walking into a wedding reception. Since 2013, Trampled by Turtles have drawn a summer crowd to Bayfront Festival Park, the massive lakeside venue nestled into the town that built the bluegrass band. Some of those milling around the grassy knoll know band members from the grocery store or middle school math class. A few likely caught the band’s first performance 20 years ago at the sandwich shop a few miles up the shore.

This year, fans and friends sold out the 10,000-capacity venue. Before the show even started, the lawnchair section filled fast with people who’ve done this a time or two. A patchwork of quilts and picnic blankets stretched between the lawn chairs and amphitheater stage, designed to resemble the iconic nearby lift bridge. 

Ross Thorn on stage
Ross Thorn. Trampled by Turtles with special guest Jenny Lewis with Ross Thorn, at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth on July 8, 2023.
Keely Zynda for MPR

Ross Thorn, a folk musician raised in Wisconsin and residing in Duluth, took the stage first, playing a mix of covers and originals with seven others wielding fiddles, mandolins and other strings. Thorn’s warm voice and witty lyrics about hard work, love and a skepticism of excess, felt reminiscent of folk greats John Prine or Blaze Foley. 

Audience members roamed around the lawn freely, catching up. Amidst the typical fair fare of cheese curds and kettle corn, local food trucks and vendors lined the perimeter, dishing out soaps, plant-based nachos, and raffle tickets for a canoe.

Set against a pale blue early evening sky, Jenny Lewis stepped on stage next, in a full black leather jumpsuit pausing to wave next to a soundboard dripping with red shimmering streamers. Once her band settled in, each of them donning their own twist on the red flame and black leather theme, they jumped into “One of the Guys.”

Jenny Lewis on stage
Jenny Lewis. Trampled by Turtles with special guest Jenny Lewis with Ross Thorn, at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth on July 8, 2023.
Keely Zynda for MPR

From the wings, some of the guys from Trampled by Turtles watched her first few songs, as she rolled smoothly through “Do Si Do” and “She’s Not Me.” It was obvious that in the eyes of some of the enthused audience members, the evening’s headliner was Lewis — an accomplished solo artist and former member of L.A. indie rock outlet, Rilo Kiley.

Her set borrowed from her back catalog while also showcasing songs from her 2023 album Joy’All — a couple of which came directly from a songwriting workshop hosted by Lewis’ friend and collaborator Beck. Seven days of prompts including “write a song with only cliches” led to tracks like “Love Feel.”

Clad in sunglasses and brown to auburn ombre hair matching her acoustic guitar, Lewis easily charmed the crowd in front of her, and the crowd behind. “This one is for the boat people,” she said, pivoting halfway through “See Fernando” to sing to the dozens of people bobbing in pontoons and sailboats in the bay.

Tugging on her acting skills halfway through the set, Lewis enacted an amplified conversation through a corded telephone between herself and a barking dog. Lamenting that she couldn’t fulfill the dog’s request for a Bob Dylan cover, she asked, “Would it be cool if I played a song about you instead?” before launching into “Puppy and a Truck.” If her 40s really are kicking her ass, you would never know it from the Chevrolet angel’s confident grin.

As the sun sank out of sight, lighting up a couple of clouds hovering above the hills, she brought the set to a quiet close as her band huddled around one microphone to provide layered harmonies on “Acid Tongue.”

The flannel-and-baseball-hat-clad crowd had swallowed up the sea of picnic blankets when curtains unfolded in patterned strips that comprised the cover art of Trampled by Turtles’ recently released and critically acclaimed Alpenglow.

Soon, the six band members took their positions in a straight line facing the crowd and wasted no time before jumping into a high-speed rendition of “On the Highway,” followed by “Starting Over,” both tracks from the new album produced by Jeff Tweedy of Wilco.

Trampled by Turtles on stage
Trampled by Turtles with special guest Jenny Lewis with Ross Thorn, at Bayfront Festival Park in Duluth on July 8, 2023.
Keely Zynda for MPR

The six bandmates showed up with a sure confidence similar to Lewis, both at a similarly established stage of their career. But unlike Lewis, who played pretty faithfully to her recordings, Trampled by Turtles tend to perform live with the hurried frenzy of a punk band, prioritizing pure energy over perfection. With some songs, like “The Darkness and the Light“ or “Wait So Long” doubled in speed, the dancing crowd near the stage routinely dissolved into something bordering on a mosh pit.

That frenetic energy output makes sense, when considering the band's stew of musical influences, like frontman Dave Simonett’s background in rock or fiddler Ryan Young’s stint as a speed metal drummer prior to joining the band in 2007.

Topping the bluegrass charts with every album they’ve released since 2010, the band has grown a national following due to their tendency to stretch the boundaries of a genre firmly rooted in tradition and experiment with new ways to approach the bluegrass sound.

The band periodically quieted the venue with slower ballads, like 2015’s “Alone,” or the bittersweet and distorted rendition of Low’s “Days Like These,” performed with fellow Duluthian Alan Sparhawk. 

While performing another track from 2022’s Alpenglow, “Central Hillside Blues,” the band sang directly to the song’s namesake, the neighborhood nestled directly uphill from the city’s downtown: “They ripped up the streets in old Duluth / A violent reminder of an older truth / Nothing's the same, how could it be?”

Over the course of their 20 years together, much has changed within the band and their hometown: Simonett moved to Minneapolis, housing prices in Duluth have soared, and just last year Mimi Parker, the other half of Low and a pillar of the local music scene, passed away.

Through the shifts, Trampled by Turtles and Duluth keep each other grounded through traditions like these summer shows by the lake, where 15,000 show up and know the words.

The band took a brief break after a couple dozen songs before returning to the stage with a folksy cover of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” complete with delicate mandolin picking and bassist Tim Saxhaug leading on vocals. They got everyone jumping one more time with a rowdy rendition of “Codeine” and then, as is tradition, ended the night on “Duluth.”

As the barge passing under the lift bridge gave a loud blow, the dispersing crowd left the venue holding the complex and tender sentiment that there’s no place like home.

Clean Water Land & Legacy Amendment
This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.