Milk Carton Kids – Altamont Theater (Asheville, NC – Nov. 1, 2013)
The Altamont Theater sits on a small, sleepy sidestreet in the heart of downtown Asheville. It’s such a sleepy little street, you’d hardly notice the buskers and sidewalk diners and demonstrators who typically gather right around the corner near Pack Square.
The prorprieters are New York City transplants who met in the theater community up there and thought it might be nice to open a small theater and corresponding company here in the mountain south. They picked an old building with a store front and apartments above it, called in the local restorative environmentally friendly architects, and got to work. After some trial and error, they discovered great live music just worked better in their little theater than did actual, you know, theater productions. Then, about a year or two ago, they got bit by the Americana bug and started inviting people like Mary Gauthier and the Deep Dark Woods to play in there.
It’s a quite-small room, designed as a black-box theater. This makes for a tight fit on crowded nights, but also for an intimate close-up performance that can metamorphose very quickly into almost a sort of house concert vibe, in the right hands.
That vibe was in full effect when I arrived for the Milk Carton Kids’ sold-out show last week. The opening act – Jim Bianco – had already begun his incredibly charming set. It was the first time I’ve seen Bianco perform on dry land (he’s a Cayamo alum) and it was a terrific set peppered with songs that he wrote after quizzing strangers about their life stories. There was the one for the guy who had just proposed to his wife, and everyone’s favorite – the one about the woman whose favorite phrase is “That’s what she said.” For this one, he pulled an unsuspecting woman onstage who, bless her heart, looked like she had probably never utilized that phrase recreationally in her life. She ran with the task of adding the line to the end of every verse, though, however embarrassed she felt, and the result was comedy gold.
Comedy gold, it turned out, was the theme for the night.
By the time Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale took the stage, the sardine-packed crowd was ready to laugh. Luckily, the Milk Carton Kids have no trouble delivering the goods.
I’ve seen these guys a few times over the past couple of years and their stage banter has slowly, steadily evolved. It’s easy to recognize the same seeds of jokes that have likely been told in a hundred cities and, much like the songs they play over and over again, have evolved into a well-oiled machine of good timing and sarcastic deadpan. You know Joey Ryan has mixed it up ever-so-slightly when he manages to get Pattengale to chuckle, the same way you know Pattengale’s guitar work is on fire when Ryan’s eyes light up in the middle of his friend’s solo.
For these two, whose music is so beautifully subtle and understated, the comedy act is a lovely juxtaposition for keeping the audience engaged between songs.
But, it would be a shame to relegate more real estate in a review to their comedic timing than to the music itself. After all, though they may be easily compared to other polished folk duos like Gillian Welch & David Rawlings and Simon & Garfunkel, the Milk Carton Kids are their own unmistakable entity. Instead of finding the most artful comingling of their separate sensibilities, Ryan and Pattengale are sounding more and more like one being singing and playing, magically, two parts at once. It’s one thing to hear this on a recording, where the melding plays out in lovely, tight harmonies and instrumental breaks. It’s another altogether to witness in person, where these two smartly silly guys in suits manage to create such an inexplicable synergy.
Most of what they played this night were songs from their 2013 release The Ash & Clay (Anti-), though there were a couple of tunes from their previous releases. When it was time for an encore, they decided they might be willing to take requests. But, when someone from the audience called out for “Permanent” (from Retrospect), they admitted they don’t remember all the words and chords for the tune. They relented at last, and agreed to play only the instrumental introduction. The intro to the song went over so well, they asked the audience to request other intros they could play. Before the encore was through, they had made their way through five or six intros, the audience giggling along, all the way.
Then, before the laughter could die down on its own, they sneak-attacked one final time, with a stellar delivery of “Memphis” (from The Ash & Clay) – one last song of quiet magic, on this small sleepy sidestreet downtown.