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A review of...
The Handsome Family live at The Old Town Hall, Gateshead
Support tonight, and throughout this tour is from Daniel Knox, a fellow countryman and label mate to The Handsome Family. He plays grandiose sweeping ballads alone on-stage with just his keyboard (and occasional guest instruments, like my old favorite, the melodica). Vocally, Knox is like a haunted Neil Hannon, musically there are hints of Ben Folds (again, a MUCH darker version) and composers like Yann Tiersen and even John Barry. Knox seems to be teetering on the edge of madness throughout the set (both lyrically, and conversationally) but you presume it's mainly humorous...though never quite sure. The songs are generally filmic, even operatic at times in their style, "Don't Touch Me" has glimmers of early Bowie, or The Doors in full theatrical mode (just take "Alabama Song" as a reference point). It's clear that Knox is a talented musician and, to me, these songs are crying out for full band arrangements (especially drums on the aforementioned "Don't Touch Me"). On other tunes some proper strings could bring them some real Scott Walker gravity. I'm sure that this is something that Knox would be happy to deliver with a bigger budget, but for now we can savor these stripped back tunes in all their naked glory. He signs of with the fiendishly entertaining "Chase Scene" a bittersweet love song that contains the lyric that best sums up Knox: "I love you with a knife, thought some day you'd be my wife".
Occasionally I like to take a punt on a gig by a band I'm not at all familiar with, sometimes going in without even hearing a note of their music. This occasionally has disastrous consequences, like when I went to see Dancing Years, Glass Animals, and even an early gig by Mumford & Sons, upstairs at an Irish pub in Middlesbrough - all largely horrific experiences. But sometimes I'll chance upon a proper revelation and it will all seem worth it (Bodies of Water and Allo Darlin' spring to mind). I'll freely admit that The Handsome Family have totally passed me by during their 22 year existence. It's possible that I've heard their music at some point, or even chanced upon them at a festival, but I'm definitely no expert on their body of work. Luckily they fall firmly into the second category (the good one). Touring as a three piece, they are comprised of husband and wife Brett and Rennie Sparks, with drummer/xylophonist Jason Toth in tow. And what an interesting/odd trio they make.
It worried me slightly when the genre "Americana" came up in most of the articles I read about this band. I find that the bracket can encompass some desperately bland nonsense (along with some genuinely ground-breaking stuff). But, The Handsome Family, whilst having a clear country tinge to all of their songs, also have a surprisingly abrasive sound, particularly from the guitar and vocal parts. It seems like there's more of a punk ethos on show, certainly when they play live. Then there are the moments between songs which drift between in-jokes, bickering, genuinely funny asides ( mainly courtesy of Rennie), walk-offs and awkwardness. Add all this together and you've got a pleasingly unpredictable show.
It takes a while for their sound to adjust to the surroundings of the Old Town Hall but once they settle in they amble through a set of old, new and very new songs. Their last album Wilderness came out back in 2013, and whilst they touch upon that animal themed record, they also treat us to some new material which already sounds equally well honed. It's always interesting to see a band in transition, and tonight is no exception. Having said that, The Handsome Family have no qualms about delving into their back catalogue. "My Sister's Tiny Hands" from 1998's Through The Trees is a particular highlight. "The Sad Milkman" is a beautiful, sad fairy-tale which is played perfectly straight, and is all the more poignant for it. Then there's an unsurprising rapturous reception for "Far From Any Road", the darkly brooding theme from TV's True Detective. All of these songs are drenched, from top to bottom, in a gritty Southern sheen.
The band finish their set with the delicate "Don't Be Scared", yet another song that sounds like a lullaby and is real brought to life by Rennie's playful resonant lyrics. As they return to the stage there's an ill judged request from an audience member to "PLAY FREEBIRD!!!" which finally gives Brett a worthy target to focus his anger on. Not for the first time tonight though, Rennie plays the peacekeeper and they stick it out for an excellent finale of "The Dutch Boy".