For those Newport Folk Festival fans who have looked at this year’s line-up (July 25-27 at Fort Adams) and not recognized many of the artists, take heart! There’s always a discovery to be made. Last year’s discoveries included Shovels and Rope, Hurray for the Riff Raff, and the Milk Carton Kids, just to mention three who will be back on Newport’s stages this summer.
Alynda Lee Segarra, from New Orleans, fronts a changing group of musicians, called Hurray for the Riff Raff, who play her music, as does she, with quiet passion and admirable polish. A fierce commitment to her songs pours out of this diminutive Puerto-Rican- by-way-of-the-Bronx and former street-busker. Her songs can be by turns politically biting commentaries or folksy tales or even re- interpretations of standards, such as “The New SF Bay Blues.” One thing’s for sure: she held last year’s huge audience in the palm of her hand...or rather her guitar-pickin’ fingers.
The same was true for the husband-wife team of Cary Ann Hearst and Michael Trent, from Charleston, South Carolina, who moved around on guitar, keyboard, drums and other percussion instruments, also trading lead and back-up vocals. Their original songs mix in a good dose of country with folk and old-fashioned rock and roll. Their intense performance style gave the audience a one- two punch, first from the rhythmic hook of their songs and then from the emotion-packed lyrics.
But it was the combination of wit and wisdom, cunning and craft, that poured out of the Milk Carton Kids, from California, that was most memorable. These two young fellows in bluegrass-style dark suits and white shirts, project a kind of laid-back formality that underscores their amazing harmonies and intricate guitar work. They’ve garnered comparisons to Simon & Garfunkel and to the Smothers Brothers, neither of whom they claim as influences. But the way their voices intertwine, the rich old-timey sound of their ‘50s vintage guitars, the way some of their songs seem to have been around forever, and even Kenneth Pattengale’s style of swaying with his guitar—all of these are very reminiscent of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Indeed, an early recording was made with Rawlings, when the two musicians (the other is Joey Ryan) still maintained solo careers. They got together just three years ago and have released three albums in that time, with 2013’s The Ash & Clay nominated for a Grammy and two of its tracks used in the soundtrack for Matt Damon’s Promised Land.
They made a point of offering their first two albums for free to download from their website, and more than 300,000 fans took them up on it. Thus, when they played a handful of songs from those first two albums in their Newport set last year, there were cheers from the audience, as a few bars from their guitars introduced “Michigan,” a bittersweet love ballad of not turning back; “Girls, Gather Round,” a jaunty ditty about just that; or “I Still Want a Little More,” a plaintive but hopeful staring-down of apocalyptic images from today’s world. Those numbers, plus several songs from The Ash and Clay, had introductory banter from both guitarist-singer-songwriters but the primary “straight man” of the duo is Joey Ryan. Ryan did a deadpan riff on the comma between “Honey, Honey,” puzzling over that particular comma’s intended use, and a rambling introduction to “Charlie,” written by Pattengale, to his daughter, though it turns out that daughter has neither due date nor mother—she’s just a dream in her future father’s songwriting mind.
The other songs they performed from The Ash and the Clay had a wistful, philosophical bent: “The Hope of a Lifetime” points to a person’s need to buck up and keep going in the face of despair; “The Ash and the Clay” muses on what has happened to a country that sends its young men into foreign battles; and “Memphis” is a paean to a decaying city, symbolic of a country in economic decline, with references to Elvis, soul music and the Dolly Parton Bridge.
So, in the music of the Milk Carton Kids, there is a harkening to the political songs born out of folk music in the ‘60s, with a large dose of country and bluegrass sounds thrown in for flavor. Be prepared to admire their flat-picking style; to be astonished by their harmonies and lyrics; and to be greatly amused by their conversation with the audience and each other!