The Milk Carton Kids, Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, are the clown princes of Americana music, the Smothers Brothers for a new generation. For a few years, they entertained audiences with their dazzling stage patter and tongue-in-cheek dialogues as they hosted the Americana Music Association Awards Show in Nashville. In 2018, the duo poked a little fun at a question heard constantly at the Americana Conference and Festival: “what is Americana?” Their response, even though it’s a knowing nod-and-wink to the listeners, describes, in part at least (since the duo has not, so far, recorded any R&B covers that feature steel guitars), their own music: “A folk song with no discernible chorus/Bluegrass waltzes and Civil War stories/Zydeco, Tejano, original, traditional/Old-time stringband clothing is conditional/An R&B cover with pedal steel on it/I guess that’s Americana.” The Milk Carton Kids’ studio albums, though, lack the high-octane energy of the duo’s stage shows. Onstage, they’re sideshow performers whose humor fades into the ethereal harmonies of the intricately woven patterns of their songs’ melodies. A night with the Milk Carton Kids is an unforgettable night of entertainment, and now the duo has digitally released the album Live from Lincoln Theatre, recorded at their October 29, 2013, set at Columbus, Ohio’s Lincoln Theatre.
The film of the this show was first released in 2014, but now for the first time the show’s audio is available across all streaming platforms, so everyone can experience the duo as it should be experienced, live and without filters. Pattengale edited and mixed the audio and video originally in band’s sprinter van in the days following the show, but it’s now been re-mastered by Ken Rosen. Says Pattengale, “In Columbus everything came together the way that it does when audience and performer are in fine form, the energy coalescing into the mystery that drives us musicians to do EVERYTHING we do.”
The 21 tracks reproduce the laugh-out loud moments that punctuate the evening’s performance, and the exchanges between audience and singers. In one interlude between songs, the duo meanders off into a humorous history of the ampersand, the punctuation mark that joins “ash” and “clay” in the duo’s then-new album. Ryan remarks that he wanted to share a little bit of history about the album, “at least a typographical history of the title. We announced once on stage in New York City that we were excited we had used an ampersand in the album title because it was the first time we had used a symbol in the album title. Now, 75% of the people our shows are English majors, so some asshole in the front yelled out that it’s a ligature not a symbol.” He continues to regale his audience with the history of the ampersand, all to raucous laughter and appreciative applause.
Flowing freely out of the humorous patter is the duo’s incredibly gorgeous music. A little over halfway through the evening the duo gently launches into their haunting song “Michigan.” The cascading guitars flowing under the duo’s ringing harmonies, which wrap around each other, evoke the melancholy of leave-taking—as well as the ironic sense that accompanies such leaving behind—as the song build slowly to climax and then descends quietly to its final notes. The song resembles both CSN’s early musical suites and Dan Fogelberg’s emotionally yearning music. “Honey, Honey” scampers playfully along with its rambling rhythm guitar chords that chase the lead notes as the duo’s vocals call and respond to each other. Ryan introduces “Girls, Gather Round” with some patter about his trying to improve his guitar skills by practicing for ten minutes every day before tearing into a dazzling lead run to open the hot-damn folk rambler. After the blistering introduction, he says in understated fashion, “plenty more where that came from” to appreciative laughter and claps from the audience. In some ways, it’s the perfect folk song: it entrances with a good story, contains a chorus that invites singing along, features a repeatable refrain, and wraps its words in a catchy melody that makes the song memorable. The rollicking “I Still Want a Little More” skitters along with an urgency that wants brings—whether the want is sexual or political. The album closes with paeans to two cities: “New York,” whose up tempo music evokes the pace of the city, and “Memphis,” whose more languorous tone evokes melancholy for the place.
Live from Lincoln Theatre illustrates what’s best about Milk Carton Kids: their blend of folksy humor and roots music charms and entertains, and their transcendent harmonies transport us momentarily out of ourselves, even as the duo’s humor reminds us of our foibles, counseling us to laugh at them.