TVD Live: The Milk Carton Kids at U Street Music Hall, 10/28

PHOTOS: RICHIE DOWNS | The Milk Carton Kids started making a splash soon after their 2011 debut, such that the California duo were on big tours, supporting top stars, before playing their own headlining theater gigs and augmenting their sound with a full band. Maybe it was too much too soon, or maybe Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan wanted to get back to what they did best.

They say the reason for their current “A Night with the Milk Carton Kids in Very Small Venues at Very Low Ticket Prices Tour” is for the fans: to play the kind of places when they started their run not even a decade ago, for fans who may not want to see them in a bigger venue at double the price.

The first stop for the tour (after an even smaller benefit show in DC the night before) was the U Street Music Hall, which the duo hadn’t played in before, they said, but was very like the kind of places they did—dark, crowded, with capacity for only a few hundred people with the competing sound of the the beer fridge.

That device seemed to have been turned off at U Street, Ryan noted during the show (it hadn’t). But the duo’s very quiet music engendered an equally quiet audience such that when someone exited the restroom they held the door so it wouldn’t slam behind them (and maybe for the first time, you could hear the hand dryer still blowing inside).

This was quiet, quiet music that got even quieter as the night went on. And their fans responded by being just as quiet, maybe holding their breath as they heard a combination of older, lesser-played songs with some selections from a just released EP, “The Only Ones.” They never even sang along until they were told to do so (and they responded lustily for the final song in the encore, “Michigan”).

Part of the twosome’s success came in releasing their first recordings free, and the new EP was given away at the gig with any merchandise purchase. And why not? In the streaming era, all music is practically free anyway with scant money returning to artists. Giving it away distributes it widely at a time when radio is no longer a factor.

Unsuccessful as solo acts, The Milk Carton Kids worked in part because of the novelty of seeing them together: tall and short, a Mutt and Jeff combination that brings to mind Simon & Garfunkel not only in their harmonies, but in the structures of songs—the opening “Younger Years” echoed “The Boxer.” Later, their “Memphis” took a different take on Simon’s “Graceland” (“This ain’t a trip / With my son / There’s no guitar / Shining in the sun”).

But there’s some Everly Brothers, too, in their harmonies as well as the entertainment value of another, oft-forgotten but wildly successful folk duo, The Smothers Brothers. The deadpan patter between Pattengale and Ryan, the goofy little arguments they get into on stage, and the pauses before their declarations are pure Tommy and Dickie, even if their audiences never notice.

It’s also why they’re so beloved, and their shows work: the humor offsets the sad and sadder aspects of their music, one ballad after another. It’s their speciality, and it shows even more when they try humor in song, as in Ryan’s excruciating “Memoirs of an Owned Dog,” which comes in the form of a letter from a runaway mutt.

Luckily their other stuff is better, reflecting as much the scenery of life on the road as heartbreak that it may bring. They’re still trying to branch out, though some of the results are mixed. The new “My Name is Ana,” about Anne Frank (“You might have read about me / I live in the attic with my family”) struggles to make its connection with modern persecutions (Too soon, I say).

But they never lost the audience for a minute, starting the first encore with no microphones at all (and the crowd had to get even quieter to hear), and crashing into the middle of the crowd to do “Broken Headlights” among them, right in front of a girl who couldn’t believe they were singing her favorite song right in front of her, moving her to add a third harmony to the song about a Los Angeles rain.

Perhaps inspired by similar stories in Ken Burns’ Country Music documentary, the two vowed to close the night by agreeing to meet, sign, and pose for selfies with everyone who wanted to following the show—which sounded like as much work as the relatively short show that preceded it and was over by 9:30 PM.

Younger Years
Maybe It’s Time
Memoirs of an Owned Dog
Secrets of the Stars
Asheville Skies
New York
The Ash & Clay
I Meant Every Word I Said
My Name is Ana
As the Moon Starts to Rise

Snake Eyes
The Only Ones

Broken Headlights

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