Milk Carton Kids Dazzle at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage

by David Knowles

Milk Carton Still

The Kids are all right. 

After a nearly three-month hiatus from playing live, Acoustic Guitar cover boys the Milk Carton Kids returned to Berkeley's Freight & Salvage on Tuesday night, picking up right where they left off. 

"Nice to be back at work, Joey," Kenneth Pattengale quipped as the duo took the stage with their guitars and the sold-out hall burst into applause. 

With Smothers Brothers timing and a muted facial expression, Joey Ryan paused and deadpanned his reply. "Yeah." 

The Freight was the sight of the Kids' final show before Ryan's wife went into labor and prompted the last-minute cancellation of the latter half of a two night November stand. As they launched into the opening flourishes of "Hope of a Lifetime," however, there were no signs of rust, and, if anything, the two men seemed rejuvinated by the layoff.

The thing that first jumps out at you when you go to see the group live is the fact that their warm, complex sound of vocal harmonies and intricate guitar interplay is all captured by a single microphone. There are no pedals or preamps, no mixing board effect trickery, just two guys and two guitars delivering songs that never sound forced, despite their often elaborate construction. 

In a noisy age when people talk, text and post photos through movies, concerts and all the rest, the audience focus at a Milk Carton Kids' show is itself worth the price of admission. At the Freight, the restrained decibel level coming from the house speakers seemed to inspire the crowd to do likewise, so that the nuances and subtle chord changes on gentle songs like "On the Mend" came through loud and clear. 

In the quiet of their songs you're free to reflect on how you might just be watching your generation's Simon & Garfunkel, or Everly Brothers, and there's little in their unfaltering performances to dissuade you from such grandiose comparisons. 

Whether you're a guitar player of just a fan, watching Pattengale navigate the capo-shortened fretboard of his 1945 Martin 0-15 is a joy. Truly, he's one of the best flatpickers out there, and Ryan, with his Gibson J-45, gives him a solid base on which to base his astonishing explorations.

In fact, aside from a momentary flubbed chord, Pattengale didn't seem to miss a single note during two 45-minute sets, which is astonishing given the speed at which he makes his runs. 

Aside from the angelic vocal harmonies, the seamless guitar conversation, the thing that makes a Milk Carton Kids' performance such a pleasure is the duo's hilarious stage banter. 

"We've reached the point in the night when the guitars are out tune," Pattengale said late during the second set. 

"Tuning a guitar is like quantum physics," Ryan replied, pausing to let the crowd laugh. "Your expectations affect the outcome." 

The same could be said about seeing the Kids play live, of course, and the crowd at the Freight was in the palm of their hands the moment they walked out on the stage. But on this night expectations did seem to equal outcome, and bolstered by the venue's exceptional acoustics, the group's songs never sounded better. 

Yeah, it's good to have them back at work. 

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See more The Week in Acoustic Guitar: January 27 - February 2 articles.

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