“What a thrill to be in the physical and spiritual home of A Prairie Home Companion!”
Joey Ryan, one half of L.A.’s the Milk Carton Kids, addressed a packed house at the Fitzgerald Theater on Saturday night. St. Paul marked the duo’s 13th stop on a 16-part national acoustic tour with Texan folk singer-songwriter Sarah Jarosz.
The Milk Carton Kids and Jarosz met at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in 2013 and began collaborating shortly afterwards. Their initial performances together on Austin City Limits and at Lincoln Center’s American Songbook Series created a buzz surrounding the tour, which began in October. “We don’t have a name for the band yet—right now we’re just two names joined by an ampersand,” Ryan deadpanned at the start of the concert.
The Milk Carton Kids, made up of Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, released their first album, Prologue, in 2011 and followed it with The Ash & Clay in 2013. The pair have been compared to Simon & Garfunkel and were nominated for duo/group of the year at the Americana Music Awards. Sarah Jarosz also garnered a nomination for Song of the Year and Album of the Year for her third album, Build Me Up from Bones. Although she’s just 23 years old and fresh from the New England Conservatory, she’s received rave reviews for her vocal and instrumental virtuosity.
Saturday night’s concert was an intimate experience that highlighted the talent and strengths of each musician while also seamlessly melding their styles. The all-acoustic set list and no-frills aesthetic on stage placed the focus on the beautiful instrumental and vocal harmonies created by the collaboration. The performers clearly enjoyed playing together, as was evident in their humorous on-stage banter.
The concert featured 21 songs in total, a mix of the Milk Carton Kids’ and Jarosz’s music, new collaborative material, and covers such as Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells.” The musicians occasionally switched instruments—Jarosz on mandolin, banjo, and guitar; and Pattengale and Ryan on various guitars—and they took turns singing lead. They were accompanied by a cellist, a bassist, and a fiddler, who collectively make up three-fourths of a group called the Brotet.
The three voices intertwined so seamlessly that it was hard to imagine the artists performing without each other. They played a diverse mix of upbeat, foot-tapping songs like Dwight Yoakam’s “Send a Message to My Heart” and more melodic, haunting pieces like Radiohead’s “The Tourist.” What unified the mix was the depth and richness of their vocal harmonies.
The Milk Carton Kids performed a few of their mainstays, such as “Michigan” and “Snake Eyes” throughout the evening, but Jarosz’s dynamic vocals and the additional instrumentals added a new dimension to these songs.
“We’ve played that a lot by ourselves and we were getting tired,” Ryan joked after performing a song off the band’s first album, “New York.” “Now it’s so easy—we’re with professional musicians.”
Ellie Fuqua is a freshman at Macalester College. She plans to double major in international studies and media and cultural studies, and hopes to pursue journalism as a career.