Sarah Jarosz and The Milk Carton Kids Triumph at Gruene Hall


Videos by American Songwriter

Videos by American Songwriter

With a laugh, Kenneth added that, “Music is free already. We just gave it away in a way people aren’t used to.” He went on to add that in a certain respect our conversation was privileged anyway in that only in our time have so many had the luxury of choosing an aesthetic pursuit as a career. His point is well taken when we remember how seldom a career as an artist has ever really paid the bills. Extremely popular at the time of his death Mozart still left his wife deeply in debt and Robert Johnson, unquestionably one of the greatest musical geniuses of the twentieth century, died virtually penniless.

That the Milk Carton Kids’s third album, The Ash & Clay, is now up for sale by the independent record label, Anti-, whose motto is “Real artists creating records on their own terms” is proof that their vision of a few years ago was dead on. By keeping to their path, making music their own way, and putting on incredibly polished performances night after night, they are now with the label that Tom Waits, Neko Case, and Wilco call home.

Having offered something of an argument in support of the idea that a different artistic, philosophical, and even economic mindset is now firmly in our midst and that these artists are at its forefront, it remains to describe the real substance of what happened in Gruene. Even for me, it remains a mental stretch to think of something as traditional and unassuming as modern folk and bluegrass as avant garde. Without much ado they opened with “Hope Of A Lifetime” and just as it was at the Ryman in September you could have heard a pin drop by the end of the first verse. Half of the front row was occupied by a gang of elementary kids from the school Sarah attended as a child. Transfixed in their seats they did not shuffle a foot or move an inch. When the song ended the crowd exploded, now aware that something very special was happening in the hall. Then came “Snake Eyes” followed by a lecture from Joey on the proper use of the comma, before a rousing rendition of “Honey, Honey” that had the kids on the front row tapping their feet. A beautiful version of “Charlie” was joined by the first creaks of the ladies’ room door that added a living poignancy to the imaginative reverie about a father’s thoughts toward an unborn daughter. The next number, “Michigan,” drew from the crowd another explosive response and when it was announced there would be only one more song the collective groan carried an air of indignation. As it was, “Girls, Gather ‘Round” was not to be the final number, for after a lengthy standing ovation, The Milk Carton Kids were joined by Jarosz, Nathaniel Smith, and Alex Hargreaves for a stunning version of “Years Gone By” that again brought the crowd to its feet. With Sarah’s harmonies and a violin and cello in accompaniment, the moment, as anyone familiar with their music might imagine, was sublime.

In ten years of going to Gruene I have never seen a crowd more thoroughly caught up by an act that was to most of them unknown. It is true that the headliner confers honor upon the opening act, but in this case the self-described “underwhelming glory” of The Milk Carton Kids had the mostly middle-aged and never easily impressed Wimberley crowd wondering what in the world their Sarah has really been up to since she left. For years, people in Wimberley have known she was profoundly special, but now they know by the company she keeps a little more clearly how deep that really goes. Nine out of ten in Gruene that night might not have ever heard of The Milk Carton Kids if they had not opened for Sarah Jarosz, but fifty bucks says if you float the Blanco River this summer, which runs through the heart of Wimberley, you will hear their music drifting out from someone’s screened-in back porch.

At the end of their set, the audience, with several loud objections, reluctantly let the Milk Carton Kids go and welcomed with raucous enthusiasm Ms. Jarosz, Alex Hargreaves, and Nathaniel Smith to the stage. Smiling, Sarah made her greetings to the crowd who took a minute to settle and when they did she opened the set with a slow, rolling movement of her clawhammer banjo into “Tell Me True.” First released in 2009 on her debut album, Song Up In Her Head, the simplicity of the haunting ballad has attained a new sophistication through four years of study and performance. In the second number, “Left Home,” the addition of the technically exceptional Hargreaves and Smith began to show how remarkable this night truly was going to be. Here, her work with Netsky combined with Hargreave’s and Smith’s training was definitely apparent. The trio was able to weave complex melodies around one another without once denying each other a definite place in the unity of the arrangement. That the blending seemed effortless is a testament to the understanding the musicians have reached with one another.

“Come Around,” now with Sarah on the octave mandolin proved the same before her hypnotic falsettos on “My Muse” moved the set into a palpable ephemerality. Next, “Build Me Up From Bones,” the title track from her new album, revealed the depth of thought and careful use of imagery that makes this album her most mature poetic work to date. An instrumental, “Old Smitty,” so named in honor of the rapid-fire bowing and slapping required of Nathaniel Smith on this one brought a roar from the audience and deservedly so. Smith, whose parents were also in the audience, had the chance to ask them, much to the amusement of the crowd, if they were proud that their son’s classical training had paid off in that he was now, “playing in bars.” Compact and intense, it was one the best performances of the night. Three covers followed: the staccato laced “Book Of Right On” by Joanna Newsom, a sultry, wailing rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Simple Twist Of Fate,” and the Gaelic-minded, “Puddle Jumper,” by banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck (with whom Smith, Hargreaves, and Jarosz have all performed) were each inventive and original interpretations of those artists’ work.


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