The Milk Carton Kids – The Bowery Ballroom – May 19, 2013
There were two rare occurrences at The Bowery Ballroom last night. The first was that the venue was set up with seats—a sit-down affair for the Milk Carton Kids. The duo, Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan, played in just a rectangle of light with four microphones onstage, one each for their voices and their guitars. Working largely from material off their new album, The Ash & Clay, the pair proved to be worthy of a seated show, better the audience to sit in hushed awe, savoring the fantastic two-part harmonies and every crisp note from the acoustic guitars.
While imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, it’s a two-way street, and if the Milk Carton Kids sound like they’re imitating the bluegrass-y folk of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, it’s just as flattering for the upstarts to be compared favorably to the gold standard of the genre. The music was a delight, early set highlights being the opening “Hope of a Lifetime” and “Honey, Honey,” the latter featuring the first of many great guitar solos from Pattengale, mixing bluegrass, country and old school swing jazz in a mix that could give Rawlings a run for his money. Music wasn’t the only thing they offered, though. For the same price of admission, the full house was treated to a two-man comedy team, a cross between Abbott and Costello and the Smothers Brothers, with Pattengale mostly playing the straight man to Ryan’s understated ramblings.
The banter truly felt like bits, Ryan starting off on one theme and then riffing his way through highbrow humor, drawing real laughter from the crowd. The line between the serious and the not so serious was thin for these guys, and at times nonexistent, like during “Charlie,” when a botched song became an opportunity for a one-liner or two. Still, it was the music itself that had the folks sitting at attention, the perfect blend of harmony and guitar playing in “Michigan” being a personal representative highlight. And that second rare occurrence? It happened right before the Dylan-esque, venue-appropriate encore of “New York”: a well-deserved standing ovation. —A. Stein