I saw a man in a kangaroo costume at the Varsity Theater this Friday.
It was at the Tyler Childers show, and it was one of those one-piece pajama-jumpsuit-type outfits, with a hood for the kangaroo's head. He even had a stuffed baby kangaroo chilling out in a pouch across his costume's belly. He wore a light jacket over it and some Doc Marten-ish boots.
This Marsupial Man wasn't a good dancer, exactly, but he had a lot of enthusiasm: There he was, song after song, bobbing his head, beer in hand, or doing kind of a stomp-y dance in time with the downbeats of Childers' bassist, first one foot, then the other.
We're in the thick of Halloween season, so it's not too strange to see the occasional person out in costume. But it does say something that this guy got all dolled up in kangaroo regalia for Childers' show—it's one illustration of how the Varsity's crowd was absolutely there for Tyler, to a degree that almost made me feel bad for his opening band, Ona, whose set was accompanied by a loud thrum of people talking.
That talking didn't entirely cease once Childers took the stage. Rather than follow the easy route of making last year's Purgatory his set's core, he threw in liberal doses of lesser-known songs off his buzz-building Live at Red Barn Radio EPs, as well as a few covers. But whenever Childers and his band, the Food Stamps, did break into one of Purgatory's standouts, most of the crowd would sing along to every word. (And in the case of the "I Swear (to God)" verse ending in yells of "hope you sleep tight!" and "god damn—fire in the hole!" they did more than just sing.)
The Kentucky-based Childers has developed a contingent of passionate Minnesota fans. This Varsity show sold out well in advance, and for many who hopped aboard with Purgatory, this show would have come after a long wait.
Childers' sound is firmly country and folk, with just a little bit of Southern rock, but his lyrics keep his music from feeling retro—continual allusions to pills give the opioid epidemic an almost Biblical weight, similar to the role of the Great Depression in much older folk music.
The Food Stamps play Childers' songs with the comfortable precision of a nail pounded into soft wood, They do some upbeat two-step stuff, but quite a few songs cruise along at what I’ll just call "trucker speed": roughly the pace and feel of C.W. McCall's "Convoy." I found myself wishing they’d goose the tempo for a few songs; then again that might have squashed the words. It's kind of a catch-22.
Childers has a great voice in two senses of the word. Sure, there's his raggedly gentle singing, somehow both boyish and ancient-sounding. But there's also the voice, in the literary sense, of his lyrics. He writes about the South, and particularly about Kentucky, in the language of its people, mixing autobiography with fiction, with an ear for the rhythm of human speech. At the opening of Purgatory standout "Feathered Indians," he sings, "If I'd known she was religious/Then I wouldn't have came stoned/To the house of such an angel/Too fucked up to get back home," and that grammatically wrong "came" is essential to the voice of the song's narrator. That "came" creates verisimilitude.
Although the audience at the Varsity was on Childers' side, his set ended abruptly. Late in the evening the Food Stamps ceded the stage for him to play some music solo, and Childers started "Lady May," from Purgatory, only to stop partway through. I couldn’t hear what was going on, but I was told later Childers had been signaling to the sound engineer throughout the night about his monitor mix. He asked "Could I actually get some guitar in these wedges?" before playing "Nose to the Grindstone/" Then he left. I stood on the floor in general admission for the show, but my parents were seated up in the Varsity balcony. They said they saw Childers walk directly through a door that led outside after he left the stage.
The house lights went up, and there was confusion—some realized the show was over and left, but most stayed, clapping and cheering, or just standing, hoping for an encore. The enthusiasm didn't flag. (I sort of hate encores, but I waited too in case one happened.) Soon, music pumped in over the venue's PA. The crowd chanted "One more song! One more song!" for a while, before finally members of the Food Stamps came out on stage and began to disassemble their gear.
The crowd: Aside from Marsupial Man, there was a lot of flannel (including on the body of this intrepid reporter, camouflaging a Minor Threat t-shirt underneath) and a lot of forward-facing trucker hats.
A note on the opener: Perhaps a premonition of the apparent sound issues during Childers' set: I really couldn't hear Ona very well. It's normal for opening bands to be a little quieter than the headliner, but I actually mistook them for pumped in music at one point.
Shake the Frost
Messed Up Kid
I Swear (To God)
A Song While You're Away
Ever Loving Hand
I Got Stoned and I Missed It (Dr. Hook cover)
Tulsa Turnaround (Kenny Rogers cover)
Peace of Mind
Honky Tonk Flame
Lady May (cut off early)
Nose on the Grindstone