Milk Carton Kids
Carolina Theatre, Durham
Thursday, July 17, 2014

The last time the Milk Carton Kids were in town on a tour of their own, the duo played at Casbah, the Main Street club that closed at the start of the year. The outfit got a major venue upgrade for its current round, playing the quiet, reverent and less-than-full Carolina Theatre last Thursday night. Though some fans seemed to think they were in a rock club, the acoustic duo still delivered a sweeping set of gentle songs, pulling heavily from its Grammy-nominated 2013 LP The Ash & Clay.

The two men of the Milk Carton Kids are Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, singer-songwriters who met a few years ago in California through their mutual musical interests. The acoustic-guitar-playing pair shares songwriting duties and complement each other perfectly. Their vocal harmonies weave together, with Pattengale’s impressive picking flitting over Ryan’s steady rhythmic strums. And while Pattengale focused on getting his old guitar in shape between songs, Ryan took care of most of the stage banter. His dry, sharp sense of humor lifts the duo’s more mournful tunes.

A couple songs into the first of the band’s two sets, Ryan said he’d been feeling sick, that the audience should give the band about a five percent leeway on the show’s quality. Anything less than 95 excellence “is on us,” he said. Still, Ryan and Pattengale flew through their first set, drawing mostly from The Ash & Clay before taking a short break.

During the second set, a few audience members derailed the show with fairly bizarre antics that Ryan and Pattengale handled gracefully. The first incident came while Ryan delivered a sarcastic yarn about the band’s new merchandise. A fan in a balcony seat took a flash photo—then another, and then two more—before Pattengale spoke up to say that having the flash on from that distance didn’t actually do anything to help the photo quality.

Ryan picked up his merch tale, and with it, two particularly rowdy guests acting as equal parts guffawing Greek chorus and hecklers. Their color commentary was enough to prompt Pattengale to ask if weed had just been legalized in the state. The tickets weren’t cheap—the floor seats cost upwards of $60—so it’s bizarre that anyone would spend that much on tickets just to go and hassle a band.

Rudeness aside, the duo breezed through the rest of the set, which included three new songs. Another audience low point was the laughter during “Memoirs of an Owned Dog”—a song that’s devastating at heart rather than funny.

The night came to a close with a brief geographical theme, closing with “Michigan” before returning for a double encore of “New York” and “Memphis.” The gentle songwriting of the Milk Carton Kids meant the evening was far from a foot-stompin’ folk throwdown; rather, it was an opportunity to listen closely, in a way that many venues simply can’t accommodate.