Music > Live Reviews

The Handsome Family

The Waterfront

by Richard


The Handsome Family


It is 20 years since the release of the Handsome Family album Through the Trees and on this tour they are celebrating the anniversary of its release by playing the album in its entirety as well as promoting a deluxe vinyl release on Loose Records.

The music for the evening was opened with a solo set from Drunken Prayer, aka Morgan Geer, who also performs with the band Freakwater. Singing original songs of the Appalachian mountains but also subjects such as that of urban gentrification (Cordelia, Elsewhere) that we can all empathise with so well ("I hate what they did to our town, so I moved to another town"). Morgan held an attentive and appreciative audience throughout the set and is someone to check out. He's seemingly yet another artist now based in that musical hotbed of Portland, Oregon, presumably the 'other town' mentioned in song.

Little did I know at the time that Drunken Prayer's solo set with an electric guitar was to be the only appearance of a Fender Telecaster of the evening. Something that is usually synonymous with Brett Sparks and the utterly unique sound of The Handsome Family.

For the first time in my memory at least, Brett played the entire set on acoustic guitar while he and Rennie Sparks (ukelele bass, banjo, autoharp and vocals) were augmented by Jason Toth on drums and percussion as well as Alex McMahon with some electric guitar, slide, and keys. The sound was a strong, spacious, powerful and highly complementary mix to accompany Rennie and Brett who honestly explained the difficult backdrop and circumstances of the time of the album's writing and recording but in a way that had the audience laughing along with them, balancing as they do so well the subject matter with good-natured humour and openness.

The Handsome Family live experience is of course about more than just the songs, brilliant though they are. Their interaction between themselves and the audience elevates the show above the routine, giving each show a special individual character. Somehow the chat here even covered scorpions and golden finches but they cover a lot of the deeper and darker feelings in song too, with lyrics written by Rennie and the lead vocals (for the most part) delivered by Brett, who writes the music. You just know the songs are spoken from the heart and soul of them both, they have that authenticity that the listener just feels. They may jibe, joke and bicker like the long-time married couple that they are but they are the perfect foil for each other with a great onstage dynamic. I could not help noticing that often when Rennie was doing a song introduction or a solo, if Brett suddenly thought of something funny, he just looked at her in a way that anyone catching it would see the love in his eyes and his eagerness to share the thought with her. It was quite touching. This was my fourth or fifth time seeing them perform live and yet no two gigs have been the same. I firmly believe that's the case each night too. Their gift to us is the unique performance each and every time.

The album rendition itself, played in order was excellent stuff ("This is the point where you flip the record over", during a tuning moment), even including some songs which are clearly a bit of a challenge to perform live but it was a privilege to hear them. Any set that starts with personal favourite and album opener Weightless Again is setting the bar high but The Handsome Family maintain that level and captivate their audience throughout.

If this wasn't enough, the encore was so wonderful it actually brought a tear to my eye, hearing another personal favourite (Bottomless Hole) segue magnificently in an improvisational jam into Far From Any Road. This was probably the set highlight for me.

Another great show from the band although I could not help thinking it would have been better suited to the more soulful Arts Centre where they always seem to sell the place out but once the music started here they transported us all to their own wonderful world just as they always do.