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Published: 2011/08/17
by Sam Robertson

Dead Man Winter
Bright Lights

Banjodad Records

Bright Lights is the debut album from Dead Man Winter, a side project of Dave Simonett, the frontman of popular Midwest bluegrass band Trampled By Turtles. In Dead Man Winter, Simonett is joined by a couple of his bandmates from Trampled By Turtles, including Tim Saxhaug on bass and Ryan Young on fiddle. However, that core is augmented by drums, electric guitars, and keyboards, sounds not found on Trampled By Turtles’ albums. Dead Man Winter may be growing in the shadow of Trampled By Turtles, but this electric rock and roll band is a fresh, exciting outlet for some of Simonett’s material that doesn’t fit squarely in the bluegrass mold.

Because of the electric instruments and rock and roll approach, this album sounds just about nothing like Trampled By Turtles, even though there is one song, “New Orleans,” which also appeared on Trampled By Turtles last album Palomino. But this new version of “New Orleans,” is fleshed out with beautiful interplay between electric guitars and fiddle on top of a steady, country romp drumbeat, giving it a radically different flavor from Trampled By Turtles’ previously recorded version. Ryan Young’s screeching fiddle is all over the album, as is Simonett’s acoustic strumming, but there is no bluegrass anywhere on the album. Trampled By Turtles are known for their lightning quick picking, but Dead Man Winter’s album opens with a jangly acoustic guitar riff backed by thumping drums instead. Then electric guitars enter and build up, and by the end of the song, this band sounds more like Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers than Trampled By Turtles.

Like Petty, Simonett seems to have a knack for writing irresistibly catchy rock and roll songs. Just try to get the soulful bounce of “Wasteland” out of your head, or the good time country honk “House of Glory,” or the scorching hot rock and roll of “Get Low” and “Industrial Daybreak.” These are the kind of songs that would be all over the radio if the radio still played good rock and roll. In “Wasteland,” Dave Simonett sings, “There came a song on my favorite station, it’s that rock and roll I like,” and on Bright Lights, Simonett has crafted an album full of that rock and roll that some of us still like and wish we could find on the radio. Full of great guitar and fiddle riffs, pristine vocal harmonies, and choruses that will live in your head, this album is infectious and a pleasure to listen to over and over again. Simonettt and Dead Man Winter clearly draw influence from the rootsy Americana of The Band and The Byrds, the strutting bluesy rock of the Rolling Stones and the lyrical genius of Bob Dylan, but pay tribute to that golden age of rock and roll while also forming their own distinct and unique voice.

Dead Man Winter’s unique voice stems from the lyrics of Dave Simonett, who writes straight out of life experiences. Like Bob Dylan, Simonett is from the vast rural expanse of northern Minnesota, but more so than Dylan, his songs are very directly shaped by his experiences living in the state. “A Long, Cold Night In Minneapolis” is the most directly Minnesota-influenced song, as Simonett sings about “the howling winds up here” and rough, lonely winters. With his coarse but sweet whiskey soaked voice, Simonett sings with an authenticity that suggests he’s experienced everything he writes about. In “Get Low,” he sings, “I’ve been down and you know it’s true,” and after hearing that snarl, it’s hard to doubt him.

Throughout much of the album, Simonett sings about being down and hard times, with a weary voice that defies his age. Though there is no shortage of catchy, bouncy rock and roll on Bright Lights, the album is balanced out by gorgeous country ballads, “Where In The World Have You Been?” and the album-closing masterpiece “Bright Lights.” “Bright Lights,” is the kind of song you can imagine pouring out of a bar’s dusty jukebox fifty years ago. Simonett opens this mournful country ballad singing “morning comes so fast, nothing ever lasts,” and the song is Dylan-esque with its balance between world-weariness and delicate beauty. Simonett has grown as a songwriter, and Bright Lights balances ballads about hard times with upbeat rock and roll. Dead Man Winter is essentially a rock and roll outlet for Simonett, but don’t underestimate these guys because they may technically be a side-project – Bright Lights contains perhaps the best batch of songs Simonett has ever written, and the band complements them perfectly with catchy, rootsy rock and roll.

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