Live | The Milk Carton Kids @ Fox Theatre Tucson

When the Milk Carton Kids first emerged from Eagle Rock in 2011, it was from out of the ashes of two failed solo ‘careers’. Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale spent most of a decade attempting to find their footing amongst themselves and with various bands before a stroke of serendipity had them meet. In the discourse that was to follow this meeting, one thing led to another and the two had settled on trying their hand at a duo project together. Stripping back the ornamental sounds of their previous endeavors and pairing just two voices with two guitars, they found ironic success in the ‘folk’ revival of the early 2010s, made Marcus Mumford cry, and released four albums along the way.

Though their more intricate and—indeed—more folk stylings haven’t quite picked up in the same way as the high decibel thrills of the Lumineers or Of Monsters and Men have, Ryan and Pattengale have stilled managed to wrangle a sustainable career from out of their work together. They ride that middle line somewhere between the unknown and, perhaps, too-well-known. In the midst of it all, they’ve cultivated a dedicated fanbase who will quietly lend an ear to the unsuspecting complexities of their music and truly allow themselves to stew on their ruminations along the way.

Albeit, walking out on stage to present such music to a sea of people must always at least be a little terrifying for a band like this. The Milk Carton Kids do not present what many might view as a typical concert-going experience, where you are expected—and sometimes even outwardly encouraged—to shout, clap, stomp, and sing along to their tunes. Their music doesn’t warrant a party-ready atmosphere, instead relying on its audience to at least bare an intelligence enough to sit down, keep their “concert lighter” apps off, and really attempt to offer a discerning ear to what is unfurling before them on stage.

Luckily, the crowd at Tucson’s Fox Theatre bore this respect for the Milk Carton Kids throughout their kick-off show for their ongoing tour last Friday. Thusly, we were given a real treat of a night, all without the drunken wails, space-invading gyrations, and “accidental” camera flashes of a typical evening out to catch your favorite band. This might be especially so because, for the first time since their fruition, Ryan and Pattengale invited a full band onto the stage with them—complete with pedal steel, mandolin, bass, cello, violin, piano, mellotron, and Hammond.

So, it wasn’t that they were just presenting us with a full band that evening. Rather, they were presenting us with a fuller band than most bands might! It’s representative of the choices Ryan and Pattengale had made when crafting their new album out on 29 June, All the Things That I Did and All The Things That I Didn’t Do, so it wasn’t as if they had decided anytime in the too-soon past to just slap together such a multiplex of instrumentation. Instead, it was a case of an assured mutual confidence shared between the band and their audience.

Any sort of trepidation needn’t have applied that evening, and the staggering respect given by the audience—not all of whom couldn’t have possibly been long-time fans of this still-burgeoning collective—truly made it so that a special feeling pervaded the night. For a band that has often been tagged by non-listeners as “peaceful enough to fall asleep to,” the quiet energy that flows from the Milk Carton Kids’ performances are staggering when you pay them full attention. All of the intricacies that go into developing such supposedly minimalist music are laid especially bare on a live stage, and it speaks wonders to the craftsmanship of the musicians present that evening—let alone the venue’s sound engineer—that everything had gone off without a hitch from start to finish.

Photo: Jacqueline Frahm

If you’ve read this far, chances are that you already know of the magic of the Milk Carton Kids. Whether Ryan and Pattengale present their songs purely as a guitar-bearing duo, or whether they bring on a good handful or two more of artful talents to join them, there is an innate allure about their music that is only evoked more potently in a live setting. Their seemingly inherent knack to produce nail-on harmonies and wonders of flat-picking madness is still there, and the striking abilities of the band they’ve brought along with them only help to elevate these remarkable traits.

With that said, this writer here was all-too-ready to dub one of their two-man presentations as his favorite performance of the evening. Indeed, when Ryan announced that there would be a “coffee break” for the rest of their band so they could “pull through” a 90-minute set, an eagerness had certainly washed over those in the audience who initially had known them for their work explicitly as a duo (myself included). While those moments were indeed grand, I found myself closest to a good, old-fashioned Mumfordian cry when the rest of the band returned and Pattengale took the lead on their new album closer, ‘All the Things…’.

A word should also be said of the band’s opener, singer-songwriter J.S. Ondara. Although I’d made it to the Fox just a tad late, I was still able to catch the majority of his set and was happy I was able to. His voice is a remarkable instrument—instantly ensnaring with its full-bodied soul. When Ondara wasn’t captivating the audience with his one-man acoustic performances—trademarked by a stirring falsetto—he, not too unlike Joey Ryan, fashioned himself as the unwitting funny man. Because of Ondara, I might just pitch my future child’s name as “Germany Frahm” when all is said and done.

Perhaps more credit should be given to the gracious crowd that evening. The Fox Theatre is one of Tucson’s most reputable venues, hosting the likes of Sarah Jarosz, Joan Baez, and Tommy Emmanuel well before the Milk Carton Kids ever graced their stage. They have often promoted a listening room quality about their concerts that our humble desert rarely sees—and for such a large venue, at that, it’s a wonderful feat.

Here’s to hoping that it won’t be long before the Milk Carton Kids visit Tucson again—maybe when it’s a little cooler for those California bones of theirs. For a full list of tour dates, please visit their official website.

Words by: Jonathan Frahm (@jfrahm_)