Sarah Jarosz and The Milk Carton Kids: the sound of contemporary folk music

When ACL vet Sarah Jarosz and newcomers The Milk Carton Kids decided to bring their complementary visions of acoustic music together on tour, we here at Austin City Limits knew we had a golden opportunity to showcase the sound of contemporary folk music. So we were happy to present this double shoot with two of acoustic music’s leading lights.

Despite their youth, The Milk Carton Kids could have stepped out of the early 60s folk revival. Playing almost purely acoustically – no guitar amplification, one vocal mic – Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale recalled a time when the Kingston Trio, Peter Paul & Mary and (especially) Simon & Garfunkel ruled the hit parade. Driven by close harmonies and skillful guitar work and punctuated by deadpan humor, the besuited duo’s songs had a timeless quality that only the best folk contains. From the peppy “Honey, Honey” and “New York” to the melancholy “Snake Eyes” and “Michigan,” the Kids moved through every iteration of folk music, even touching on Woody Guthrie-style commentary with “Memphis” and “I Still Want a Little More.” The pair finished the set by inviting tourmates Jarosz and her band up for “Years Gone By” –  “It turns out for this song that we sound better as a five-piece than as a two-piece,” noted Ryan. That may have been true, but regardless The Milk Carton Kids proved that they needed only the two of them to make music worth hearing.

One quick set change later, Sarah Jarosz and her band, Nathaniel Smith on cello and Alex Hargreaves on violin, took the stage. A recent graduate of the New England Conservatory, Jarosz brings a composer’s eye and a virtuoso’s ear to folk, moving from tradition into a realm of her own. She began with “Tell Me True,” which builds on Appalachian music, before moving into the more modern forms of “Left Home” and “Come Around,” both of which featured burning string work from Hargreaves and Smith. The trio then ranged from the minor key pop of “Build Me Up From Bones” (the title track of her latest LP) and the dramatic folk rocker of “1,000 Things” to the gorgeous balladry of “My Muse” and the busy instrumentalism of “Old Smitty.” Jarosz also dipped into the songbooks of others, treating the audience to an accessible take on Joanna Newsom’s “The Book of Right-On,” a solo rendition of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Kathy’s Song” and, count ‘em, two Bob Dylan songs: “Simple Twist of Fate” and “Ring Them Bells.” She also repaid The Milk Carton Kids’ favor by having the pair join her and the band for two tunes, “Annabelle Lee” (based on an Edgar Allen Poe poem) and “Mile On the Moon.”

We’re proud to have been a part of this presentation of the best in young folk artists, and we can’t wait for you to see it when the episode airs early next year. Watch this space for details.