Whole Milk Harmony: The Milk Carton Kids Serve Up Stark American Folk Music

Joey Ryan is catching a plane back to L.A., and somebody on the intercom at the airport keeps calling his name. His seat is apparently being upgraded, and now Ryan expresses understated joy as he returns to his phone call with Scene.

"Fantastic," he says dryly, his speaking voice much more low-key and reserved than his onstage singing voice and persona. "I'm flying home from New York right now for a few days. We take every third weekend off to go home and be with our families. Being in the midst of a two-and-a-half-month tour, it kinda keeps you grounded."

He and partner-in-crime Kenneth Pattengale are on yet another nationwide tour, performing their stripped-down harmonic folk in cities large and small. Together, they're the Milk Carton Kids, singers and guitarists who share blood with the Simons and Garfunkels of years past. Their 2013 album, The Ash & Clay, continues to garner critical acclaim (a Grammy nomination, appearances on the soundtrack to Oscar-nominated Inside Llewyn Davis), and this mostly sold-out spring tour only furthers the understanding that the Milk Carton Kids are a musical force of chemistry and talent.

There's something nearly magical about their harmonic vocal work in songs like "Honey, Honey" and "Michigan," the latter having appeared on 2011's Prologue (available for free on the band's website). Ryan and Pattengale complement each other with aplomb on their guitars, nimbly picking their way through dazzling rivers of sound (cue "Hope of a Lifetime").

Ryan concedes that he tries not to think too much about what invisible hands of the universe led him to one of Pattengale's solo shows in L.A. just a few years ago. And he would prefer not to comment on what, precisely, it is that makes this duo just so aurally alluring.

"I try not to ask too many questions about it, you know. We feel pretty lucky at this point," he says.

Nevertheless, Ryan and Pattengale teamed up for a bout of songwriting, sort of fleshing out songs they had written as solo artists, and cut an album together in 2011 (Retrospect, released as "Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan"). What followed was a rapid ascent to renown, though Ryan insists the whole trip has felt decidedly less rapid than it appears to the outside world, to the world of his now-adoring fans and to the music press writ large.

They've been performing with just one microphone during this tour, bringing the two musicians closer physically and creatively.

"It's been the most enjoyable tour we've ever done," Ryan says. And despite the undeniable tightness of the duo's recorded output, the live iterations have morphed over time, sprawling into improvisatory fields and organically sprouting new compositional limbs.

"The performance of each song has evolved — in a significant way sometimes," Ryan says, elaborating: "Adding or changing chords or sections, or changing harmonies, sometimes just zeroing in a little bit more effectively on the real center of the song. Part of the reason why we wanted to put out this DVD [Live from the Lincoln Theatre, released April 29] is that our performances have evolved so much from the performances on the records that the records almost felt like an old picture."

All of that makes for an enticing undercurrent to the Milk Carton Kids' steady growth. They're a live band, no doubt. Ryan and Pattengale thrive amid the traditions of folk singers taking to the road and performing dusty odes to the country they've gotten to know.

Couple that with the singers' penchant for stage banter and audience interaction, and it's clear that the band is wholly comfortable onstage. The two joke back and forth, with Ryan often taking up the "funny" mantle and Pattengale working the straight man routine, calling his fellow guitarist back into the music. It's all very old-timey, and yet extremely of the moment. The current folk scene, stretching across the entirety of our American soil, is intimately tapped into its elders' worlds. Even their instruments (Ryan plays a 1951 Gibson J45 and Pattengale has a 1954 Martin O-15) call to mind earlier traditions of folk music. Those axes just sound so right in the hands of these guys.

"I don't know that, listening to our albums, the word 'fun' would be the first word used to describe them," Ryan says, laughing lightly. "But I think that the live show might be 'fun' somehow, playing those songs that somehow have been made to be enjoyable, rather than purely emotionally indulgent." The current tour, nearly sold out in its entirety (tickets for Cleveland's gig remain available as of press time), proves his point. The Milk Carton Kids are in the business of experience in these moments, even more so than strictly releasing music.

It all began a few years ago, when the two musicians were finding their way among L.A.'s brimming folk scene. Truly, it wasn't too long ago that few outside their circle had even heard of these guys.

"I had heard there was somebody named Kenneth Pattengale putting on a pretty compelling show, so I went to it purposefully. I introduced myself after the show and it kinda went from there, I guess," Ryan says, returning once again to his understated form. With national press and awards shows and legions of fans now hovering around their every note, the guys are eyeing a future bright with creativity and growth. "We just try to put ourselves in the middle of it and see what happens."

The Milk Carton Kids with Brian Wright

8 p.m., Monday, May 5, Beachland Ballroom, 15711 Waterloo Rd., 216-383-1124. Tickets: $15, beachlandballroom.com.

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Eric Sandy

Eric Sandy is an award-winning Cleveland-based journalist. For a while, he was the managing editor of Scene. He now contributes jam band features every now and then.
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