The Milk Carton Kids’ most recent release is titled “Prologue,” and it is aptly named given that with this recently formed collaboration of Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, the main event that fans should be waiting for is their vibrant and unexpectedly stirring live show. With only five months of official band-ship under their belts and a solid three-month headlining tour booked, the Milk Carton Kids brought their minimalist yet emotionally expansive guitars and voices to Colorado in a set at the Soiled Dove Underground on August 26th.
The Milk Carton Kids put on a show that is distinctly their own, and it’s more than the sum of it’s parts: two stools, two guitars, two guys, four mics, and a pretty short set list. The Soiled Dove Underground was the ideal venue for these two, with the small stage surrounded by tables of rapt listeners. After the first song, a friend – an indie music aficionado who had not heard of the Milk Carton Kids before and is not easily swept away – turned and simply said, “Wow.”
There aren’t many bands that can connect immediately with an audience, but Kenneth and Joey did. While on their albums their two voices often blend seamlessly, on stage they brought two clearly different personalities and skill sets together, creating those chords and harmonies that upon just listening, deceives us into thinking they might just be one guy.
It was impossible to ignore Kenneth’s guitar playing. He seemed to play with energy stemming from his feet, knees, and shoulders in equal measure, a marionette-like shimmy that was both endearing and fascinating because it was so unabashedly earnest. If ever playing a guitar was a physical and emotional workout, this was it. At one point a string snapped (not surprising given Kenneth’s tenacity), and he pulled it off the guitar without melodrama and continued on.
Joey, meanwhile, led the vocals in a clear, confessional style, accented by Kenneth’s harmonies and guitar. Joey’s voice has a perfectly placed waver, adding an emotive layer to the lyrics, which resonated with pleasant authenticity. Early in the show, Joey introduced a song, “Charlie,” that Kenneth wrote for his future (yet non-existent) daughter. What could have been a saccharine ode was instead an honestly wistful dedication, one that planted a seed in skeptical minds that it might just be okay to believe in an optimistic future. Not a bad feeling to have these days.
There is also something refreshing about a band that takes itself seriously without taking itself too seriously. A few songs in, Joey said to the audience (in his slightly playful, self-deprecating style), “So, now we’re going to play eight more sad songs.” And they did, although a sense of buoyancy still ran through the evening, preventing plaintive lyrics and melodies from becoming somber. Favorites in the room were definitely “Michigan” and “Permanent,” although upon asking for requests from the audience, Joey got a smattering of passionate responses, showing that in just two albums together (and both in less than one year), this duo has created many individual tracks that resonate.
It's almost a shame to have to describe the Milk Carton Kids as an acoustic guitar-playing folk duo, which conjures up images of hippies with swaying curtains of blonde hair, gazing through a sepia haze at two guys strumming in the Haight. Although, to be fair, Joey Ryan would fit right into that scene with his John Lennon looks. And it is easy to make comparisons to those who laid down the roots of this particular style of music – Joey and Kenneth’s harmonies do have the soft, rounded vowels of Simon & Garfunkel, but the difference is, they don’t ride on the harmonies till the end – there are edges and immediacy in their music and words. And if you listen closely, there’s a slight residue of Dylan-esque, country-bluegrass grit seeping through.
Like the foggy urban skyscrapers on the cover of “Prologue,” the Milk Carton Kids’ live performance beckons the audience to squint, lean forward, look closer. The show at the Soiled Dove Underground certainly had the room at attention. If past is prologue, then we are in for a treat.