The Handsome Family – RNCM, Manchester – 22/02/17

The Handsome Family can’t fail but make an impression on you. They stroll on stage and the now New Mexico-based husband and wife duo Brett and Rennie Sparks spend the first three minutes chatting amongst themselves and to the audience about everything from the soft carpet that Brett has insisted on (for his soft feet, quips Rennie) to why he was carrying a knife in the green room (unexplained). The masters of the murder ballad are at once funny and just ever so slightly edgy, and Rennie plays on this more than once as she asks, with a sidelong glance, “who’s off his medication tonight then?”

Of course, there is a serious aspect to that remark, Brett having been diagnosed as bipolar earlier in their career. But it’s all just part of an act that melds some great music (Brett) with intriguing lyrics (Rennie).

Visually they are a contrast, with Rennie, who personifies economy of movement, appearing to be laid back and in control while the peripatetic Brett has some of the mannerisms of Guy Garvey. He dresses like him and even looks a little like him; only the manic arm waving is missing.

The choice of songs (their history is detailed in almost all cases) ranges over their 10-album portfolio of work with just four of the 16 from their latest album Unseen, from which their best song on the night, ‘King of Dust’ is taken. More of that later.

The subjects are broad and occasionally disturbing. Opening song ‘Gold’ is about a town where “violence is random and pointless.” Could be just about any town in the U.S. I reckon but it seems to refer to their home city, Albuquerque, while the following one, ‘Too Much Wine’, is about how Christmas is spent there. You got it – palatic.

As the show progresses the songs touch on snakes; what they were wearing when they met; a café stop in California; and the New Mexico State Fair, which Rennie describes as “the 36th best in the U.S.”, adding  “Mississippi’s is the worst: two cats fighting in a box.” Along the way Brett sings, literally, about a hole in their backyard, and in a voice that touches on demonic.

But there are serious songs, too. ‘Your Great Journey’, about when you know you are fading from existence (as the old tend to know, as they become invisible to the young) was dedicated to the recent passing of a country great, while ‘The Giant of Illinois’ poignantly references the World’s Tallest Man (Robert Wadlow), who died aged just 22. Along the way, they drop in ‘Far from any Road’, which was used as the main title theme for the first series of the HBO 2014 crime drama True Detective, a fact that clearly fills Brett with pride.

The laconic, growly bass voice of Brett contrasts with, yet works well with Rennie’s much lighter but not quite soprano one as he strums his guitar while she works her way around an acoustic bass, an instrument you rarely see. The two supporting musicians are drummer Jason Toth and guitarist Alex McMahon, another native of Albuquerque and a member of the band Wildewood. Between them, they add pedal steel guitar, xylophone and several other instruments while Rennie reveals herself to be a dab hand on the zither.

While McMahon’s contribution brought the musical production to a different level throughout the evening he totally transformed the song ‘King of Dust’, which closed the main set.

There is a recording of King of Dust below but it bears no comparison to the version played on the night as the band, prompted by McMahon, engaged in what can only be described as alt-country meets experimental, almost ‘prog,’ rock. I’ve certainly never heard anything like it before and it deservedly got the biggest cheer of the night from an enthusiastic audience, even allowing for the fact that it was the show closer.

They occasionally touched on politics, such as in Rennie’s introduction to the upbeat Octopus (“they are powerful creatures, I need them to dig under that wall”) but in a jokey way that wasn’t likely to start any fist fights on the balcony. You get the impression that life in the Handsome Family is a whirl of in-jokes, asides and puns.

It wasn’t a perfect gig. Some singing was not quite in unison and there were a couple of bum notes from Brett. But you’re not seeking perfection when you go to watch The Handsome Family, you’re looking for entertainment and boy, don’t this weird and wonderful couple, with their wacky, mysterious songs, provide it.

Is it a coincidence that Courtney Marie Andrews has the same initials as the Country Music Association, which has its annual Awards Fest around this time of the year? She hasn’t won anything at that gig but then she’s technically bluegrass though I can’t tell the difference; it’s just country music on an acoustic guitar to me (with pedal steel accompaniment on this occasion).

In every way, the 26-year old is a winner. Her voice is pitch perfect (comparisons I’ve read with Eva Cassidy aren’t far off the mark), her guitar playing skills are at a high level, she’s well presented, confident yet unassuming, enthusiastic, and personable.

The last time she was in Manchester she played Dulcimer, a small bar in Chorlton. A full RNCM was no challenge at all as she romped through a seven-song set, her best songs being the powerful ‘Put the Fire Out and Dear Mother’, which she wrote during a truck stop while hitch-hiking. A girl in a hurry – she’s been on the road since she was 16 and has recorded six albums already.

I’d like to see her here again, headlining. She’s back in the UK later in the year taking in some festivals.

©D J Bentley, 2017

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