Photos by Ty Hyten
The Scene: Thursday night I found myself making a hurried drive along the long line of weed shops, broken down filling stations, and antique parlors that line the road South to one of Denver’s most intimate and community based venues, Swallow Hill. Based in an old church, the whole experience reminds you a lot of going to church as a kid. The crosses and the candles have long been removed, but the décor and the smell will take you right back to Sunday school in an itchy sweater. The smiles on the usher’s faces, the little donut room turned cafe in the basement, and the somber mood inside Daniels Hall, the old sanctuary, all keep it going.
After catching wind of The Milk Carton Kids performance at Folks Fest [Editor’s Note: Read our review here], I was sure to get there early for what I thought would be a packed house, especially for a show without an opener. Not the case. As the show’s start neared the intimate 299 seat venue was only about half full, with patrons spread out like strangers in a matinee. However, the room comfortably filled with some young and many older folks within 15 minutes, just in time for the start of a great evening. Swallow Hill always has the strange ability to fill the room with more older folks than young, regardless of an act’s typical fan base, which I believe speaks to the timelessness of Roots and Folk influenced music, and more so to what a cool thing Swallow Hill has going.
The Milk Carton Kids: A smiling Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, who collectively make up The Milk Carton Kids, came into the nearly pitch black room around 8:15 and had all of us laughing, smiling, and listening for the next two hours. Kenneth opened by saying it would be a special evening because they’d spent much of their summer playing 30 minute opening sets for some of their favorite bands (Old Crow Medicine Show, K.D. Lang, Dar Williams) and several festivals, and tonight they’d be playing a full two hours for us. He joked we probably wished we’d brought our flasks, though we soon found the hilariously dry back-and-forth between the two, and their music, were all we needed.
The two opened with “New York” with Kenneth’s fingers starting what would be two hours of running around the capo’d fretboard like a possessed crab. The duo’s voices fit so well together it’s hard to believe that they could have never met. Each occupied the high and low parts of the harmony at times, and sat vocally in the vein of Simon & Garfunkel without encroaching on their territory. Joey stayed planted in gentle fingerstyle accompaniment while Kenneth tore around the fretboard with drops of sweat on his forehead and cheers from the audience. Joey introduced the song “Charlie” from their album Retrospect as a tune Kenneth wrote about his unborn daughter, then hilariously got around to explaining that she was so unborn that she was yet to be conceived. The two had the audience rolling with laughter between every song as they went from old song to brand new and back again the entire show.
After a brief intermission the boys returned to the stage and sincerity thanked the audience for making the night so comfortable for them. They also shared that after a few more songs they will have shared their entire new record for the first time with an audience. Shortly thereafter, Joey stopped Kenneth mid-intro, to much laughter, to share that he believed we’d find it pertinent that the song they were about to play was the first they ever did together as they restarted “Permanent.” The show ended with a three song encore kicked off by the fan favorite “Michigan” followed by their jokingly “most ambitious song,” “Undress the World.”
The Milk Carton Kids put on an excellent show and left people with non-stop laughs, even better sounding versions of their recorded songs, and a whole preview of a new album. It was more than any of us could have asked for. In the past year we’ve seen acts like The Civil Wars take off and I think Milk Carton Kids, based on the quality of their live work, will be the next folk duo to break into the mainstream.
Stage Presence: A
Set/Light Show: C