The Handsome Family – Manchester Academy 3 – 04/03/18

Many people’s association with The Handsome Family began when cable channel HBO used ‘Far From Any Road’ over the titles of the darkly gothic first series of True Detective. This prompted new fans to investigate this husband and wife duo from Chicago further, leading many to discover one of the best albums of the Americana genre, 1998’s Through the Trees. The significance of this album has clearly not been lost on Brett and Rennie Sparks, and the pair have decided to celebrate the record’s twentieth birthday by taking it out on the road, playing it in full during a month-long jaunt around the UK.

Joining them for the ride is Drunken Prayer AKA Morgan Geer. Sans band this evening, Geer presents a stripped back collection of suitably world-weary tales that compliments the tone for which The Handsome Family are famous. Hailing from North Carolina and clearly ensconced in a world populated by offbeat characters typical of the country-blues genre, Geer provides an entertaining musical tour of the American landscape of his youth. He gregariously manages to engage a dedicated and knowledgeable audience with self-deprecating lyrics and a rugged style of musicianship, all crafted on a distinctive Fender Telecaster.

It’s fair to say that Brett and Rennie Sparks have had their ups and downs but Through the Trees represents a ‘turning the corner’ moment. Health scares during the early 90s resulted in the diagnosis of bipolar disorder for Brett; the record was the outcome. Its significance is therefore understandable and although it’s probably fair to say that a large majority of fans have already seen the band perform at some point in the past, there is a tangible sense of anticipation as the crowd patiently wait with Johnny Cash playing in the background.

The Americana genre is an odd one because its success lies in an artist’s ability to craft a distinctly visual product. Fans are beguiled by the enigmatic landscapes and nefarious characters we’re introduced to and this is where The Handsome Family succeed in spades. Each track this evening is introduced with a rambling prologue during which Brett and Rennie spar, joke, disagree with facts and opinion and eventually arrive at an even plane of agreement as they contextualise the genesis of every song from the album. The candour inherent on songs like ‘My Ghost’ give us an insight into the duo’s difficult experiences and observations, amidst the hardships of being both a working band and husband and wife, and many of these introductions allow us all to see the funny side of what were clearly difficult times. However, certain interludes this evening are simply amusing digressions, particularly Brett’s acerbic takedown of Trump which was absolutely hilarious!

The Handsome Family

Musically, the album is presented in incredibly dynamic fashion. Brett’s deep baritone is gorgeously rich and is subtly accompanied by Rennie’s vocals, but it is the erratic textures provided by the baritone guitar in particular that add unexpected delights to the songs which thrill the most.

The encore offers an opportunity to take a few requests which results in the inevitable ‘So Much Wine’ along with murder ballad ‘Arlene’ from debut record Odessa. Even these melancholy tales can’t shift the delightfully jovial time we have all spent in the company of The Handsome Family tonight.

Photos: Iain Fox