Fans were packed like livestock in a pen for the Americana act’s second sold-out show of the weekend. Christmas lights were strung through the bar and cigarette smoke wafted in through the open front door. Dave Simonett, best known as the frontman for on-hiatus bluegrass band Trampled by Turtles, wore an askew Twins hat and button-down shirt topped with a thin jacket, looking like a kid on his first day of school. If not for his auburn beard, you would guess he was far younger than his 37 years old.
Simonett opened with “This House is on Fire,” the first track off Furnace, the album Dead Man Winter released in January. Based on Simonett’s divorce from his wife of ten years and the mother of his two children, Furnace is steeped in pain and self-loathing – sentiments that didn’t translate live. Simonett played the songs from that album louder and faster than the recorded versions, and he crowd dug it, raising their beers and engaging in some seriously embarrassing air guitar. But the depth of the music was missing. There was no “there” there. Simonett, it seemed, was phoning it in.
For someone who’s witnessed Dead Man Winter, formerly the Twin Cities’ best-kept-secret, catch fire on the indie scene this year, the checked-out vibe was disappointing. It was like watching a flat-screen fireplace rather than feeling the heat, crackle, and danger of an intimate bonfire.
That said, Simonett appeared to enjoy himself. As he proceeded through the hit parade of Dead Man Winter anthems like “Nicotine” and “Destroyer,” he smiled and hopped around as he strummed his guitar. The closer one watches him play, however, the clearer it is that he is in a committed, monogamous relationship with his music – and we are not invited to the party. Simonett was playing in front of an audience but not for the audience.
Though clearly in his own world, Simonett wasn’t alone onstage. A band of top-flight Minnesotan talent backed him up, including Erik Koskinen, J.T. Bates, and Tim Saxhaug. (Indeed, the only “I love you” shouted from the crowd was directed at the baby-faced Saxhaug, who was working his ass off playing bass and providing backing vocals.)
Simonett’s between-song banter was banal; he stuck to generic musician-speak like “It’s good to be home,” “You guys are the best,” and “Thanks for packing this place up two nights in a row.” He didn’t introduce his songs or name the albums from which they came. He didn’t reference Trampled by Turtles or tell a single story or joke. He didn’t name his bandmates. His eyes remained firmly fixed on the floor, on his collaborators’ instruments, or closed.
Having interviewed Simonett for a City Pages cover story earlier this year, I can attest to his innate charm and chattiness; those traits were absent on Saturday night. Koskinen displayed more wily charisma in his single opening song “Six Pack of Beer and a Pack of Cigarettes” than Simonett did over 17 songs. Even opener Frankie Lee made an effort to engage the audience with a tale of his visit to Graceland and his praise of the Turf Club, disdainful bartenders and all.
Not only did the cat have Simonett’s tongue, he eschewed some of his best songs – those on the thrashing EP Careful I Think It’s Loaded and the emotionally evocative instrumental EP Lake Superior, both released in July on the morning of Dead Man Winter’s Rock the Garden appearance.
The crowd didn’t seem to care about Simonett’s lack of presence; there was many a whoop, whistle, and holler as well as a few growled “yeahhh”s when songs started. Lyrics of drinking away one’s sorrows and being a fuck-up and letting others down clearly resonated with many of these men.
About halfway through the 90-minute fast-and-furious jam session, Simonett brought the Pines onstage. The spindly Benson Ramsey, looking like he just fell out of a bird’s nest, and David Huckfelt, the bearded, beanied musician built like an ox, played a thundering rendition of their song “Aerial Ocean.” At the end of the tune, Simonett hugged both Ramsey and Huckfelt before taking back the mic.
Huckfelt and Ramsey returned later in the set for a cover of Greg Brown’s “Trump Can’t Have That,” a political tune Huckfelt had hoped would be a sing-along. Unfortunately, he may have miscalculated the number of Trump voters in the crowd – only a small section of the audience chimed in.
Simonett finished with the sprawling coyote howl of “You Are Out of Control,” which evolved into a psychedelic cyclone. The ear-piercing volume and assertive bass were so strong you could feel the thrum of the tune under your skin. One by one, the musicians left the stage as an instrumental loop repeated over and over.
Following enthusiastic applause, Simonett returned to the stage solo and played an acoustic version of one of Trampled by Turtles’ most gorgeous songs, “The Calm and the Crying Wind.” Finally, it felt like Simonett was transmitting genuine emotion from the center of his chest to the ears of the hushed crowd. The spell was broken shortly thereafter when the band returned, Bates dropped several F bombs in quick succession, and a feverish cover of Tom Petty’s “You Wreck Me” sent the crowd into dance spasms.
Fans dispersed, revved-up and seemingly satisfied, but something about the experience felt empty and superficial. Chalk it up to exhaustion (Simonett didn’t take the stage until 11:10 p.m.) or desensitization (Simonett’s been touring this material for 10 months and it may very well be stale), but I was underwhelmed, even (forgive me, Dave) bored. Simonett was playing all the right chords, hitting all the right notes, but his stage presence was flat and detached. Given Simonett’s passionate musicianship and skilled songwriting, I’d hoped to feel something more…inclusive? Interactive? A core-shaking, earth-shattering, what-just-happened sense of awe? (Is that too much to ask?) Instead, Simonett delivered a well-oiled, almost rote performance of the best songs of his career.
The crowd: All white, more male than female, divided into two camps: flannel and puffer coats. The age range was surprisingly wide, from twenty-somethings to retirees. Several audience members sported trucker hats or beanies, and there seemed to be an excess of black glasses wearers in attendance.
Overheard in the crowd: “I love a good harmonica.”
Random notebook dump: Please don’t pat your girlfriend’s butt to the beat. Please don’t pat your girlfriend’s butt to the beat. Please. Don’t. Pat. Your. Girlfriend’s. Butt. To. The. Beat.
Critic’s bias: Forget Trampled by Turtles; Dead Man Winter is the music Dave Simonett was born to make.
This House is on Fire
Red Wing Blue Wing
I Remember This Place Being Bigger
House of Glory
The Same Town
Aerial Ocean (by the Pines)
A Long, Cold Night in Minneapolis
Am I Breaking Down
Trump Can’t Have That (Greg Brown cover by the Pines)
You Are Out of Control
The Calm and the Crying Wind (Trampled by Turtles song)
You Wreck Me (Tom Petty cover)