REVIEW: The Milk Carton Kids

I thought when I went to The Ark for Tuesday’s Milk Carton Kids show that I was getting a low-key acoustic show. I got that, but also so much more. At times funny, ridiculous, and bittersweet, The Milk Carton Kids and their opener Sammy Miller and the Congregation defied description in a concert I won’t be forgetting any time soon.

The name Sammy Miller and the Congregation sounds like a throwback to the Jazz Age, but theirs wasn’t a traditional jazz show. In fact, they told us, they were banned from the genre of jazz for reasons that were implied to be related to their production of a “jopera:” a jazz opera that eschewed any genre. The band incorporated theatrical elements, humor, and even a little pop music into their set. Their jopera was weird and wonderful, incorporating costumes, singing, and even a nonsensical storyline (an essential part of any opera). They engaged the audience, sometimes leaving stage and returning via the seats, as actors often do. I’m still not sure how to describe what I saw, but I know I was entertained.

The Milk Carton Kids, a duo consisting of Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, couldn’t have been more different in style and substance from their opener. Their sole instruments were two acoustic guitars. They wore suits and stood around one mic while they performed a set of mostly melancholy folk songs. But they, too, injected a surprising amount of humor into their set in their pre-song introductions.

At the beginning of the set, for instance, Kenneth confessed that he was watching the World Series on a device hidden in his bag (I don’t blame him). That joke recurred throughout, and there were times when Joey would start introducing a song and Kenneth would stand at the back of the stage, tuning his guitar and clearly peering into his bag. The whole audience was laughing at their intros, which were at turns funny, awkward, and self-effacing. It was an odd juxtaposition; it was almost as if they were performing a comedy show in between their folk concert.

The music itself was entertaining for very different reasons. I was impressed by the band’s harmonies, particularly on their slower songs. The intimate setup of The Ark and the songs’ sparse arrangements really brought out those harmonies. One song I particularly enjoyed was “I Only See the Moon,” a song from their upcoming album. Their penultimate song “Michigan” was also a highlight. Luckily, they were lying when they sang “Michigan’s in the rearview mirror” and came out for an encore.

I also enjoyed listening to the lyrics of the songs they played. Many were about traditional topics of contemporary folk, such as melancholy memories and places of the past, but others were political or even happy and upbeat. I allowed myself to sit back and get lost in the imagery of the lyrics, something that’s not possible at other types of concerts.

Though the Milk Carton Kids aren’t the kind of band I regularly listen to, and their concert wasn’t the kind of concert I usually attend, I was glad I went. The music was beautiful and the spoken interludes were entertaining. I’d never seen anything like this concert before, and I have a feeling I won’t ever again. But I’ll remember every bit: the humor and the harmonies, the beautiful and the weird.

PREVIEW: The Milk Carton Kids

I used to think I didn’t like folk music, but that was before I went to The Ark. From my first show, I was hooked. Folk is usually centered around simple instrumentation and exquisite harmonies, which combined with the venue’s exceptional acoustics is a match made in heaven. The Ark only seats 400, so even the introduction to a song can feel like an intimate conversation with the band. After the show, you can often meet them.

This Halloween, if costumes and haunted houses aren’t your thing, here’s an alternative: come to The Ark to see The Milk Carton Kids! They’re an indie folk duo that has been nominated for a Grammy, toured with The Lumineers, and been praised by Sara Bareilles, and they even have a song called Michigan. The Ark’s website sums them up using the phrase “haunting vocal harmonies” and that alone is enough to make me want to drop everything and come to The Ark Tuesday night.

The Milk Carton Kids with opening act Sammy Miller and the Congregation come to The Ark Tuesday, October 31 at 8:00 PM. You can buy general admission tickets for $35 at The Ark, at the Michigan Union Ticket Office, or online at

REVIEW: Brett Dennen at the Blind Pig

Seeing any show at the Blind Pig, known for bringing relatively famous acts to Ann Arbor, is bound to be an experience.

Even before the opening act took the stage, the place was filled with people ranging from the minors on one side of me to the thirty/forty something couple on the other side. There were no fans running and little ventilation, so people were shedding outer layers like crazy as we waited.

Then Lily & Madeleine took the stage. As the couple next to me put it so well:

“Are they sisters?”

“I don’t know, but they’re cute as pie”


A quick Google search for this blog confirmed that they are in fact sisters hailing from Indiana, and they are definitely Midwestern–from “almost went to U of M” to writing a song about the city of Chicago.

The announcer mistakenly announced the venue as the Ark, and Lily & Madeleine’s music would have been a much better fit for that more relaxed atmosphere. I enjoyed listening to their music–I’m downloading a couple albums Flume as I write this–but the acoustic and piano-heavy set was probably not the way to go opening for Brett Dennen at the Blind Pig.

The audience was one of rudest I’ve ever experienced. As you can probably hear in this video, it was hard to hear the music over the sound of everything talking and making noise. Most people weren’t paying attention to Lily & Madeleine, and one woman next to me kept texting in a phone that was on full brightness. It would have been one thing if the music was bad, but Lily & Madeleine proved themselves to be talented artists that didn’t deserve such a treatment.

Luckily the crowd calmed down by the time Brett took the stage.

Somehow Brett Dennen turned 36 the day of the concert, even though he looks like he stopped aging after 25. Brett’s boyish looks and figure make his music all the more endearing. Switching between two acoustic guitars, his crooned slower favorites like “Ain’t No Reason” and “Where We Left Off.” For the faster numbers, he brought out the electric guitar and shredded the heck out of it.


The crowd sang along to hits like “Wild Child,” “Comeback Kid,” and my personal favorite “Make You Crazy.” Singers like Brett Dennen make it impossible to stand in the crowd and not shake your head or shake your hips along to the music. Performers like Brett know when to point the microphone out to the audience, when to stand at the very front of the stage and jam with his tongue out, and when to take a break and ask the audience for their birthdays.

I freely admit that I am only a casual Brett Dennen fan, but I could easily become of the devoted fans that sang along to every one of his songs at the concert if I let myself. If you get a chance to see Brett in concert, I highly recommend it.

PREVIEW: Brett Dennen at the Blind Pig

If you haven’t heard of Brett Dennen, the singer-songwriter hailing from Oakland, CA, I invite you to listen to one of my favorite songs from him:

An oddly satisfying blend of pop and folk, right? Brett’s newest album, Por Favor, was released in May, and you can hear it live at The Blind Pig on Thursday, October 27th

Where: The Blind Pig

Time: Doors open at 8

Cost: $25

Satisfaction at seeing Brett Dennen perform live: Priceless

REVIEW: Ann Arbor Folk Festival Night One

When David Mayfield first came out onto the stage on Friday night, it was an understatement to say I was majorly confused. He started talking and making jokes, so at first I thought he was there to introduce the first act. But then out of nowhere he received a guitar and started playing and singing a song, and I was really confused. Was this The Ben Daniels Band? Was this the opening act before Ben Daniels?

This was my first experience at the 39th Ann Arbor Folk Festival, something I’d been waiting for since December when I got my ticket. When I was in high school, I sat on my bed and listened to a simple song called “The Girl” over and over until I needed more, and finally, I’d get to see the singer/songwriter live. But even though I was thrilled to see City & Colour headline, I was more excited to have the opportunity to see the Ann Arbor Folk Festival at all, since it was something I’ve been hearing about since I started going to school here.

It definitely did not disappoint. Though the seats were nowhere near to being filled, The Ben Daniels Band definitely started off things right. Although it was more country influenced than I usually prefer, I still enjoyed the upbeat songs, and was definitely a great start to the night. Their set really picked up around the third song, which saw Ben trade his electric guitar for an acoustic. The singer also told the audience it was a love song, already a crowd-pleaser, and also informed us it’s been five months since she married Ben, getting a hearty applause. Although opening for so many bands can be rough, they set the tone for the night that all the other acts had to match.

Next up was Penny and Sparrow, a duo from my home state of Texas that I absolutely adored. Simply coming out with one guitar, I was amazed at how quickly I fell in love with their music. It was definitely a change of pace, as all their songs were slow and quite melancholy, but it definitely showcased one of the strengths of the folk festival – no two artists sounded the same. By balancing the upbeat Ben Daniels Band with the slower Penny and Sparrow, the night never became too slow or too fast or too country or too anything. Penny and Sparrow definitely surprised me the most, and I walked away that night a new fan.

After Penny and Sparrow, Nora Jane Struthers and the Party Line was a fresh change from the male dominated bands previously. She also kicked up the tempo, delighting and engaging the audience well. This was the part of the night when I definitely regretted being in the balcony of Hill Auditorium. Nora was more bluegrass and Americana than straight folk, which again showcased the variety, but also made me want to get up and dance. As someone who’s from Texas, even though I’m not a huge fan of bluegrass and country, I know how to dance to it. It was also an interesting change of pace when she sang with the emcee David Mayfield.

After Nora Jane was The Oh Hellos, a band I looked forward to, as my friend liked their music. I didn’t have time to listen before the show, but I trust her musical taste. As it turns out, she was more than right – The Oh Hellos performed the best set of the night by far. They brought out and entire troupe – 9 total, although the actual band is just brother and sister Maggie and Tyler Heath, again, from my home state. They were definitely the closest to indie on the roster, perhaps only being passed by City & Colour slightly. I fell in love with their song “Exeunt,” which although short rises to an amazingly satisfying climax. While they were playing, too, they were jumping all around the stage – not just to jump, but because that’s what the song feels like. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a headbanging violinist, but I did that night, and he was having the time of his life.

The last act before the intermission was a group that everyone should know, Yo La Tengo. For some reason, their set was my least favorite – they played about an hour, but each song was similar in that they were all slow, dreamy songs. It was definitely entertaining when they played “Friday I’m In Love” and everyone in the crowd sang along, but after the youthful energy of The Oh Hellos, it felt a bit off. Nonetheless, they still played a great set, and at intermission I was pleased and excited for the last two acts.

I’m not familiar with folk music or the folk community, although after Friday night I realized I should be, because I love folk music, but the next act is apparently a legend. Richard Thompson came out and there are no words for his set. He was alone, no band, just a guitar, and what a guitar player he was. At one point, he sounded like he was playing two guitars at once. He also did a sea-chanty-type-song that was call and response, and was immensely fun for an audience that had already seen five acts previously. Although I wouldn’t go listen to his music on my own, I immensely enjoyed his set.

And then, finally, what I had been looking forward to all night – City & Colour. I had listened to his new album while at work that day, so I was already in the mood, and I had bought it as well as a t-shirt at his merch table. I was ready.

I guess, though, other people weren’t, because during his set – about two or three songs in – people started leaving. People had been coming and going all night, which was mildly annoying, but not horrible – it was more the venue and my annoyance at not getting front row seats (but hey, poor college student). But this was somewhat confusing – he was the headliner, right? And I mean, it was late, but 7 bands are going to take a while.

I thought maybe they had only come for Richard Thompson, but if so, why not leave when he left? After a minute, I decided to ignore it and focus on the amazing songs Dallas Green was playing.

And he was performing beautifully. He was everything my high-school heart could desire. He even started off his set with his older music, starting with “We Found Each Other In The Dark,” “Sleeping Sickness,” “Hello I’m In Delaware,” and even “As Much As I Ever Could.”

But then, maybe 5 or 6 songs in, after exchanging his guitar for the umpteeth time (he even switched mid-song at one point), he hung back near his drummer. Perhaps he was getting water or something, but it lasted for more than a few seconds, and after a minute he comes back and says “Sorry, I was having a team meeting.”

And then, right before his last song, he asked people to sing along, or, you know, leave. While at the time sounded a bit tongue-in-cheek to me (people were screaming from the balcony how much they loved him), but looking back at it, he was probably upset. After that song, he ran off stage abruptly – no goodbye, thank you, maybe he waved, but besides the song that was it. He was gone.

And worst of all? No “The Girl.”

I’m not going to lie, I was heartbroken. We were sitting right behind a railing, and I leaned over it, arms outstretched, waiting for him to come back. He had only played for around an hour, maybe less. And where was my song?

David came out one last time to thank everybody but I don’t even remember what he said. I was too dazed. The house lights came up, and my small hopes for an encore dwindled to nothing.

I’m not going to blame anyone for what happened, because I don’t know whether it was him, or if the stage managers were telling him he was out of time, or if someone else’s set had lasted too long. There are a thousand reasons his set could have been shorter than I had expected, and maybe it was always going to be that short. So I’m not going to blame anyone. But this is my honest review, and honestly, I was upset.

I had a great night overall, but it was hard to wipe that feeling from my memory. I will definitely be returning for a show at The Ark, hopefully The Oh Hellos, and I’m grateful that I found so many new bands to enjoy. But I wish it hadn’t ended quite like that.  


As one of the first warm and sunny weekends of the year comes to a close and Ann Arbor begins to recover from an eventful couple of days, I’m still riding a natural high in the wake of Johnnyswim’s performance at The Ark on Saturday night. The ghosts of endorphins are kicking around in my brain as we speak – and with good reason.  My expectations were high, but the pressure was nothing for these two, whose energy upon their return to Ann Arbor in the wake of a crowd-pleasing performance at the Folk Festival in February left them shining like a couple of polished gems.

The intimate space of The Ark was a perfect venue for the acoustically driven sound and incredible vocals of this songwriting pair.  The sold-out crowd was taken from the moment they stepped on stage, kicking off the show with a sweet and simple track from their upcoming debut LP.  While their ability to weave their voices – each distinct and rich in their own right – into a unique and mesmerizing union was enough to capture the attention of the audience, it was the couple’s magnetism that set them apart.  Married in real life, wife Amanda and husband Abner played off each other in a refreshing and intimate way that is seldom seen on stage.

As they moved on to the title track, Diamonds, the two offered an even deeper look into their lives by providing insight on the inspiration of this empowering song.  Abandoning all pretenses for frank honesty, Abner explained that this song was their “suck it” song, directed at an individual in their personal life who continues to doubt them in spite of their mounting success.  While in looking into the lyrics one can find that this message is there, the two were quick to point out that the song is also one of hope – indeed it stood for hopeful optimism to the 250 cancer children they performed it for soon after its conception.

This early peek into the minds of these talented musicians set the tone for the night, as the remainder of their performance was filled with anecdotes about various songs, new and old, and silly stories about their experiences.  The audience particularly enjoyed a long and very involved story by Abner about the events surrounding his proposal to Amanda three years into their relationship, the inspiration of their soft and rhythmic piece Paris In June.  Upon flying her to Paris for their three year anniversary on 24 hours’ notice, Abner found that just about everything that could go wrong did, though in the end he got his storybook proposal.  These insights added to the charm of their songs, deepening one’s understanding of their already graceful tracks.

Their set list gave those excitedly anticipating their debut album, Diamonds, which drops at the end of the month, a taste of what to expect. Songs like Pay Dearly, a revenge-seeking piece full of falsetto and strong riffing, bring out the soulful side of the versatile couple, while tracks like Home capture the country-folk influence of Tennessee, where the two met.  Their wide sampling of genres appeals to many different kinds of listeners, and by the end of the show everyone had found music that suited their style, calling excitedly for an encore. The two didn’t fill the request, instead showing their appreciation by holding a meet-and-greet in the lobby after the show.

As a fan of Johnnyswim, I wasn’t expecting to have the opportunity to meet them, so I was pleasantly surprised to make my way to the line near their merchandise.  Their grace and charisma translated off-stage, and I was happy to find that they are even more kind and humble than I could have imagined.  Their genuine interest in their fans was rather uplifting and I found myself walking away with a phone full of selfies that Abner insisted on taking. I will leave you with a few of my favorites, though the quality is not the best (it seems my iPhone has let me down once again.) Their debut album, Diamonds, hits iTunes on April 29th, and their EPs Home and Heart Beats are available now.

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