Live at The Sage, Gateshead
With my ears still ringing from last night's gig - Teleman in the distinctly un-glamorous Newcastle Riverside - it was nice to cross the river to the civilised refuge of The Sage, with their civilised clientele and civilised sound levels. As the band take the stage, there's no awkward silences like you sometimes get in venues like this (did I mention that the audiences are very civilised?), The Handsome Family are well versed in the art of on-stage banter. Why start with a song when you can have a little chat first? This is how The Handsome Family work, and this is one of the reasons why it's always such a great night. During the evening there's talk on subjects as wide ranging as soup burglars, snake pits, Donald Trump/witches and imaginary giant bunnies and it's all told via the snappy relationship between Brett and Rennie Sparks. The first song of night (lets not forget the songs which are just as weird, humorous and gripping as the chatter) is "Gold", a track from their latest album Unseen (their tenth) which came out less than six months ago but already seems like one of those classic records that you can slip on like a comfy pair of slippers. "Gold" is a standout track from that record and somehow seems like an old-time classic, despite it's youth compared to some of the other tracks performed tonight. "So Much Wine" is introduced by Rennie as a Christmas song which kicks off a tongue in cheek argument between the spouses, and the disagreement climaxes after Brett has to stop the song part way through to address Rennie's subsequent claim that "Jingle Bells is a scary song". We do get to hear the song eventually though and it's like a vividly painted scene, comic and tragic in equal parts. All of these songs are performed in the band's unmistakable style, homely yet dangerous, the melodies are distinctly American but this isn't country music or Americana music, it's far more interesting than those genres (for the most part) could ever be. Part of that is down to Rennie's strange and captivating lyrics and part is down to Brett's melodies. The guitar lines are often stabbed like Fugazi riffs but they still remain wholesome and traditional in many ways. The life of friend and mentor Robert Fisher is also celebrated with a couple of heartfelt dedications and recollections during the show (Fisher, of the Willard Grant Conspiracy died this month at the age of 59). Elsewhere we're treated to the oddball classic "The Loneliness of Magnets" complete with a fittingly weird and brilliant guitar solo from Alex McMahon (he also plays Pedal Steel on various tracks throughout the night). Then there's "Tiny Tina", Rennie's tale of a small county show horse which includes an impressive glockenspiel solo courtesy of drummer Jason Toth (he and McMahon really are the utility men of touring bands - The Handsome Family's other talented duo). Rennie also tries out some on-stage rallying cries in the style of local NWOBHM band Venom...with hilarious consequences. The Handsome Family have a way of making their shows sound like a greatest hits set, even for a fan who doesn't own all the albums, and hasn't heard all the songs before. Maybe they've been somehow ingrained on my subconscious, or maybe I've spent too much time listening to their strange and supernatural stories tonight. Either way, all of their songs sound familiar and timeless to my ears.