By Corin Cook
“How you doing, Boston?”
This cliché concert opening has been used thousands, perhaps even millions of times before. But this was not the opening, and this was far from a typical show.
Joey Ryan of the Milk Carton Kids shouted this inquiry about halfway through the Wilbur Theatre show of The Milk Carton Kids & Sarah Jarosz: In Collaboration Tour to get a reaction as a means of poking fun at an audience he described as “easy” to entertain.
But the audience still had no control over their enthusiasm through the evening of an eclectic mix of harmonious music and humorous banter.
The tour, as Joey described, was “spawned of a mutual admiration between us and Sarah. ... We found her first, then we finally met about a year and a half ago at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.”
Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale of the Milk Carton Kids and Sarah Jarosz along with her backup band of Sampson Grisman (bass), Alex Hargreaves (fiddle) and Nathaniel Smith (cello), however, seemed like they had known each other for years in their seamless collaboration. Each personality on the stage had the type of infectious charisma that could inspire a positive attitude in anybody.
The six seemed to have genuine respect and admiration for one another. Joey modestly pointed out, “I never really get the opportunity to work with professional musicians. They actually grew up playing music together, and you can tell – it’s actually disgusting how fucking good they are.”
The musicians all joked and laughed together as if they were a family just hanging out on the Wilbur stage overlaid by a Persian rug and other living room furnishings, such as a jukebox, coffee tables and lamps. The audience set up was nearly equally as homey, with small rows of chairs divided into different sections that a waitress tended to with cocktails.
Joey prefaced the show by saying, “This tour has given us the opportunity to play a lot of songs from different categories. We’ve prepared a very long program for you.” The audience cheered and Joey added, “I wasn’t saying it for applause, I was just trying to prepare you.”
The group certainly played a variety of song styles and origins, some by the Milk Carton Kids, some by Sarah Jarosz, some new songs written in collaboration “which nobody’s ever heard before the last five nights,” and “some such as those last two written by people other than anybody on the stage this evening which we have received no permission to perform, and still here we are using them for our benefit,” Joey joked.
The show was comprised of nearly as much of this witty and aimless banter as music, which is a renowned characteristic of The Milk Carton Kids. They (specifically Joey) are able to seamlessly ramble on for minutes on any topic imaginable with grace and articulation. The shows become an arrangement of strong emotions as the audience transitions from heavy laughter to being mesmerized by serene and harmonious music in just seconds.
On this particular evening, the witty banter seemed to be less than usual, which left me slightly disappointed, and left Joey’s musical counterpart Kenneth highly surprised. “You’re feeling uninspired tonight, Joe?” he asked. “He’s never at a loss for words, I assure you.”
The music, however, was far from lacking. The covers were a strong part of the show. They played classic covers by Bob Dylan, The Everly Brothers, Woodie Guthrie, Radiohead, Skeeter Davis, Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam. All were executed with mesmerizing vocal and instrumental production that made each cover unique and distinctive.
Another category of song is what Joey irritably described as overplayed hits. He said that they now “have the opportunity to do them in different keys, different ranges and breathe new life into things we’ve been playing for a long time.” He described the most anticipated moment of the evening – the duo’s biggest hit, “Michigan,” as “a song now that Kenneth and I are both utterly sick and tired of playing in situations other than this.” He humorously, yet seriously, added, “The band just rehearsed it without us. I couldn’t even bear it.”
This rendition of “Michigan” left me unfulfilled because, although the addition of Sarah Jarosz on vocals added a beautiful new quality to the song, I would have liked to have heard the version by just the duo that I already considered perfect.
The assortment of fast songs, slow songs, old songs, new songs, originals and covers fueled the show with energy, and I would have been content with the show proceeding all evening.
Nobody else in the crowd seemed to have wanted the show to end either. When a fan shouted, “Play all night!” Joey rejected the request by condescendingly saying, “We know a very specific number of songs together.”
And when the specific number of songs (22) concluded after a quick two hours, and the spirited crowd exited from the theatre, I realized that this was the first show I had ever gone to in which I was so involved that I did not think to check my watch to worry over how late I would be out on a week night.