If this whole music thing doesn't work out, The Milk Carton Kids can always shift gears, ditch the guitars and try their luck on the comedy circuit.
To be sure, at their show Monday night at The State Room, the acoustic duo of Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan proved nearly as adept at witty one-liners as they are at stunning vocal harmonies and intricate guitar interplay. Whether bantering back and forth to discuss a song's genesis or aggressively and hilariously chastising noisy fans, The Milk Carton Kids showed that their verbal acumen extends far beyond the songs on their albums.
The venue was about three-quarters full as the duo took the stage and kicked off the show with "Hope of a Lifetime," the opener of their most recent release, The Ash & Clay. Listening to the tall, lanky Ryan's high falsetto pair with Pattengale's rootsy croon was instantly mesmerizing, and their dapper attire only enhanced the sense that these guys are something special.
Then, just as suddenly, it seemed like the show might completely go off the rails. After the first song's completion, a fan called out a request for their song "Michigan." Pattengale quickly responded that they would most likely get to that song at some point during the show, and Ryan joked, "If you keep yelling it out between every song, one time you'll be right!"
Naturally, that opened the floodgates for other fans to holler out the names of their favorite songs, to which Pattengale responded, "Oh great, now you've set a precedent for a bunch of other people to be assholes." It was a great line, and unexpectedly aggressive considering The Milk Carton Kids deal in music of genuine gentleness and beauty.
"Weeeeell, this is going well," Ryan said, taking the edge off the episode and getting the show back in gear for an excellent performance of the song that gave the duo their name, "Milk Carton Kid."
From there, the show was more straightforward (at least, for the hour-plus I saw; I had to bail before the show's completion). The Milk Carton Kids songs, while all rooted in their voices and acoustic picking, proved more diverse that I expected. Yes, there were beautiful folk songs full of soaring harmonies, ala Simon & Garfunkel, but there were also songs that veered into traditional country and bluegrass as well. And while the between-song chatter was consistently funny, the songs themselves were emotional and heartfelt.
Among the highlights were "Charlie," a song Pattengale wrote for a future daughter, and the bluegrass-tinged "Honey, Honey." "Girls Gather Round" offered up some lighter lyrics and a fun, faux guitar duel between the two musicians. "Maybe It's Time" showed that Ryan has an excellent high-lonesome croon that can serve old-timey country songs well, and "Snake Eyes" from the new album proved a strong addition to the two-year-old band's catalog.
Solid as The Milk Carton Kids' albums are to date, there's no way to capture the rapid-fire wit that is added to the duo's live shows on any recording. Consider that a suggestion that you be sure to see them in person next time they come through town.