Formed in 2011, when solo performer Joey Ryan went to a concert by Kenneth Pattengale in their home town of Eagle Rock, California, and suggested they join forces, The Milk Carton Kids duo (named from a lyric of one their earliest songs) have made their mark in that revered section of American music that includes Punch Brothers, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, among others.
To open, Ryan welcomes the Her Majesty’s audience. It is their last show of a two-week Australian tour and it is clear they mean to finish well. He introduces guest performer, Vera Sola (aka Danielle Aykroyd), who presents a captivating entrée, some of it accompanied on guitar by Kenneth Pattengale, to whom, we discover, she is married.
She begins with “Crooked Houses”- her poetic lyrics set to a swirling guitar accompaniment, her thumb thrumming basslines in the hypnotic style of Leonard Cohen. Her version of “Famous Blue Raincoat” is one of the highlights of the brief set.
When The Milk Carton Kids take the stage, they try out some Australian slang and reminisce about koalas. Ryan has an easy charm and a comic’s timing. This could be an old-time variety show, he muses, before they step into “Younger Years”. The extended lilting guitar intro draws us in as they turn, facing each other over the single, retro radio microphone and blend their vocals. Comparisons with Simon and Garfunkel are tempting but imprecise: the clarity and sweetness of the harmonies captures the wider spirit of folk music, ancient and modern.
In their suits (Joey Ryan also wears a tie) they look like hipsters at the Grand Ole Opry. At the chorus, Pattengale is picking at bluegrass speed. It is an enthralling beginning to an outstanding show. The elegiac “Memphis” (from the “Ash & Clay” album) follows – “Graceland is a ghost town tonight.”
After some compliments about Her Majesty’s Theatre, and banter about whether it will have a pronoun change, Pattengale sings a song dedicated to his child, “Charlie”, from their first album, wryly titled “Retrospect”. A suite of songs from their newest release “I Only See the Moon” makes up the centrepiece of the set. Beginning with the beautifully phrased “All of the Time in the World to Kill “with its cooing choruses, trickling banjo and simple guitar, it reminds us of the duo’s effortless range. “When You’re Gone”, in a more sprightly tempo, is even more enticing in its easy lyricism.
Pattengale sings solo on his composition, the title song, “I Only See the Moon”. Written for orchestra on the album, he croons plaintively to his guitar a song that could easily become an American Songbook standard. Returning to the roots of country music is “One True Love”, a composition redolent of 18th-century Appalachia. A meandering banjo entwines with the insistent guitar while Joey Ryan’s keening high tenor repeats like a chant -“one true love” – capturing that same stark, melancholy beauty we so admire in Gillian Welch.
The songs keep on coming. The up-tempo bluegrass “Honey Honey”, the western horse ballad “North Country Ride”, tenderly sung by Ryan and garnished with Spanish guitar lines from Pattengale, is another highlight. “Hope of a Lifetime” and “Michigan” dip into the duo’s rich back catalogue of well-crafted songs and the set concludes with “I Still Want a Little More”.
Which, of course, we all do. Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” is the first of two encores – this time it’s the short version, Pattengale leading with vocal and decorative guitar. Ryan concludes with the pensive “Will You Remember Me ? ”. Slow and reflective, it brings proceedings to a perfect close.
And yes, we will remember. The songs, the performances, the impeccable sound, courtesy of Jason Cupp. The Milk Carton Kids (and Vera Sola) have delivered.
The Milk Carton Kids played one show only at Her Majesty’s Theatre on July 13. The Adelaide Guitar Festival continues until July 16.
Read more Guitar Festival reviews here.
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