Toward the end of his duo’s show at Liberty Hall on Sunday night, Kenneth Pattengale, one half of the Milk Carton Kids, paused to thank his audience.
But his expression of gratitude required some assurance. To paraphrase: There was a lot of humor, snark, snideness and sarcasm tossed around during the preceding 90 minutes or so, but Pattengale wanted to make sure it was understood that what he was about to say was genuine and sincere: “Thank you for coming out tonight.”
The Milk Carton Kids are a two-piece folk band from California — Pattengale and Joey Ryan — that dresses sharply (suits and ties) and travels lightly: two guitars and a microphone. Their music sways between neo-bluegrass and the kind of folk that Simon and Garfunkel used to sing back when they were Tom and Jerry and during their early “Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.” days: delicate, melodic and girded by keen vocal harmonies. If the Kids have grown tired of hearing those regular comparisons, they have done nothing to dispel them or render them irrelevant.
The harmonies aren’t the only musical component that deserves praise. The guitar play was also significant. Over Ryan’s rhythms, Pattengale laid down plenty of scintillating leads, some in high-speed bluegrass mode, others in jazzier and funkier or more soulful flavors.
But like Flight of the Conchords, the Milk Carton Kids are as much a comedy act as a music act. The rapport/shtick between the two is typically droll and deadpan exchanges of good-natured jabs and insults.
Some of it was obviously prepared, but some of it wasn’t. Like the banter about an earthquake, which turned into a comparison to sexual pleasure, then fracking and climate change and then how weird it was to walk past a surf shop and a mountain-climbing store in a city in Kansas. Then Ryan confessed he’d stopped by a downtown record store, liked the music that was on the turntable so he asked the store employee what album was playing — so he could Spotify it on his phone later.
Several of the songs were performed without stories or introductions. Others required long anecdotes, like “Charlie,” which, Ryan said, Pattengale wrote for his daughter. Who doesn’t exist. “She has no due date. Or a mother. We’ve been singing this song for four and a half years.” But his partner’s fictional child was “good for business,” he said, because she inspired a song.
There were plenty of music highlights: “Honey, Honey,” one of those bluegrass-ish songs; “The Ash and Clay,” the title track to their Grammy-nominated album; “Memphis,” a lovely folk ballad with penetrating lyrics, like “I guess it’s been a long decline / God bless the soul that shook up mine”; “Girls, Gather ‘Round,” which featured Pattengale’s best solo of the night; “Michigan,” another melancholic folk ballad about loss: “So when she calls don’t send her my way / When it hurts most, it’s the right thing”; and their finale, a worthwhile cover of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” cast only in vintage acoustic guitars and lockstep vocal harmonies.
Before that, Ryan delivered his routine about being a real dad, with a real child, and the hardships a father faces on delivery day. It was all tongue-in-cheek: He asked his wife if she could “hold it” so he and Pattengale wouldn’t have to cancel a show; her hospital bed was way more comfortable than the cot he had to sleep on. And he disputed the notion that the birth of your first child could be the best day of your life because (a) it means that every other day of your child’s life has been worse, and (b) it’s not a great day; it’s a day filled with pain and stress.
It provided a refreshing juxtaposition: extended moments of comedy and levity and prolonged moments of well-crafted songwriting and exceptional musicianship and vocal performances. And there was plenty of gratitude to be shared between both sides of the stage.