The summer heatwaves may be over but there were still waves of heat in the Norwich Art Centre last week. Indeed the temperature was so high that Brett Sparks of The Handsome Family noted that it was melting the finish on his acoustic guitar. This, and the fact that both of the Sparks were feeling under the weather, did not detract from a show of outstanding quality. From start to finish, the sizeable and appreciative crowd was enthralled by a wonderfully played set of songs, each of which feels like its own little mythic world. Fans of the band will understand how these songs seem like they have emerged, magically, from some ancient time or alternate universe in a a unique blend of old and new.
The evening began with the well-chosen support act, Daniel Knox, quickly establishing an excellent rapport with the audience. His stories of forgetting his piano stand and having to find a crap replacement and buying an, “…emotional support,” Gameboy were genuinely amusing. He talked of moving from Chicago to Porto, a change so surreal and isolating that he imagined he had died and the times he received emails and texts from friends were the times that they were remembering him. Later, Rennie Sparks of The Handsome Family said that Daniel Knox, “…has a voice that cannot be argued with.” And I won’t argue with that. His deep vocal was in turn dramatic and soaring, haunting and humorous. He opened with ‘King of the Ball’, in which he lists a darkly amusing series of things he wants to do. Lyrically, all Knox’s songs take you by surprise, with images and ideas that come from leftfield and are totally captivating, like these lines from the excellent ‘No Horizon’: “When I was only five // Some people came to our house // They took me with them and fled // I went willingly, or those had seen so said // In 1999 // I turned up again // With no memory where I’d been // And people said that I seemed different then…When my body was found // I was fifty years old…I’ll run right away from anyone // Who tells me they know where I’m from.” It’s arresting stuff. Accompanied by just with his rhythmic, often upbeat-sounding keys, all Knox’s songs were engaging and his show is certainly recommended if you get the chance.
Husband and wife Brett and Rennie Sparks are well known as the creative force behind The Handsome Family. With absorbing, thought-provoking and literary lyrics and a timeless country-folk sound, their songs are other-worldly, gothic masterpieces with a transportive power. The pair were very ably supported by Jason Toth’s flowing, fluid percussion and the outstanding multi-instrumentalist Alex McMahon whose electric guitar and pedal steel added extra dimensions to the songs. After the gig, McMahon said, “The songs are so imaginative that I want to create a cinematic soundscape that feels as if we’re hearing it for the first time.” His pedal steel was exceptional: ethereal sounds weaving in and out of the songs, sometimes dreamily soothing and others sweeping and soaring. In ’24-Hour Store’, which Rennie Sparks introduced as a song about shopping in the afterlife, McMahon’s pedal steel was something unearthly, a startling sonic journey achieved through incredible and unusual effects, the like of which you’ll rarely see or hear. Equally ethereal was the pedal steel as ‘Darling, My Darling’ unfolded.
The set began with ‘No One Fell Asleep Alone’ from 2001 album ‘Twilight’, a song that turns a mundane drive home from work into something truly magical: “But as the sun fell between // The leaning buildings and the street // The moment came ‘tween day and night // Painted soft in golden light // The crooked street shining gold // And no one fell asleep alone.” It was a captivating start with Brett Sparks’s deep vocal typically melodious. This was followed by one of the highlights of the evening, the popular ‘So Much Wine’, full of wonderful images, from meteors to bloody teeth, and narrative details of a desperate Christmas Day. It’s in songs like this that Brett and Rennie’s voices entwine so perfectly. Next up was ‘The Bottomless Hole’ from 2003 classic ‘Singing Bones’. Three songs in and three different albums had been represented, reflecting the huge pool of outstanding material that the band have to draw from. This is one of their most deeply, darkly thought-provoking songs, in which kitchen scraps, dead cows and broken tractors are thrown into a hole the narrator found behind his barn. But that hole is bottomless and never fills up, leading him to explore it: “I went out behind the barn and stared down in that hole // Late in the evening my mind would not let go…My wife she did help me, she fed me down the ropes // And then I sank away from the surface of this world.” He’s still falling. The imagination and marvellous streak of metaphor in Rennie’s lyrics was matched by the sonorous quality of her husband’s voice. When people talk about music being atmospheric, this is what they’re talking about. The sheer poetry of ‘Back in My Day’ from ‘Unseen’ delivered a magical sense of wonder as the vocal melody rose, flying higher than in many of their songs.
Throughout the rest of the show, moments of meditative bliss continued with each song. A particular highlight was personal favourite ‘Weightless Again’ from 1998’s ‘Through the Trees’. There’s such sombre, reflective power in the words: “Remember the first time we slept together // You said it felt like when you learned to float // This is why people OD on pills // And jump from the Golden Gate Bridge // Anything to feel weightless again.” There is, indeed, a weight to the song, a feel of something profound, the sense that the words and moody sounds place us close to the edge of understanding greater truths. Of course, the audience responded with enthusiasm to ‘Far from Any Road’, well known as the theme from the first season of the American TV show ‘True Detective’ and many people’s entry point to The Handsome Family. A wonderfully chilling, haunting song full of dread, this was simply perfect for the TV show, one of those few programmes when nobody skipped the intro’. There were also two new songs for fans to absorb: ‘Joseph’, which was inspired by Rennie’s creepy words when talking in her sleep, and ‘Goodnight’, the closing song of a mesmerising evening, during which the other players left the stage so that Brett Sparks finished alone.
Between songs, there were tales of Lennie’s Clam Bar getting riddled with bullets, talk of migrating birds and the plot of ‘The Maltese Falcon’, a reference to Alex McMahon’s marriage and checking out the T-shirts in the audience; this was a performance full of chat and warmth as well as The Handsome Family’s famously atmospheric music. And the songs themselves were, indeed, exquisitely crafted pieces of art. The Handsome Family delivered surrealism and dark themes, metaphorical surprises and provocative explorations of existence and human nature, enveloped in timeless sounds that bridge the old and new.
After the show, Brett Sparks chatted with AUK about the tour. He said: “We got off to a good start but then I got sick on the third or fourth day. I got checked for Covid and that was negative. It was just a horrible cold and flu and I’m just about crawling out from under it. You have to just learn to deal with it. I’ve only once cancelled a show in thirty five years. You never know what’s going to happen to give an energy boost. I just have to think a bit more about every phrase and how to compensate, focus on the voice. But I’m a terrible guitarist so it doesn’t matter!” We discussed the great input from Alex McMahon and Jason Toth and the introduction of two new songs into the set: “Alex and John were friends before we played together and they’re great. Alex can do straight country Nashville on the pedal steel but he also likes weird sounds – crawling, spidery sounds. I don’t know how he does it – incredible on ‘Don’t be Scared’. The new song ‘Joseph’ was inspired by nightmares my wife was having. She kept repeating these phrases like, ‘Come into the circle, Joseph,’ which was truly horrifying. A twisted thing. I just sat there and listened and I knew I’d get a chorus out of it and maybe a verse! She didn’t remember it at all. ‘Goodnight’ is a classic allusion to the end of the ‘White Album’ I thought it would be great for a live show. My vision was to play it ad nauseum until everyone leaves. At the moment the recording has been left in an unmastered state and it might be a while before new material is released – maybe the summer of ’23.”
This was one of those shows that takes you out of yourself; in the middle of the working week, we were transported into some other world. Few bands have the songs or the ability to achieve this so completely. Let’s hope that new music makes it out there and the band return to UK soon. When they do, be sure to experience The Handsome Family and their tales of the surreal everyday.
‘No One Fell Asleep Alone’ (‘Twilight’)
‘So Much Wine’ (‘In the Air’)
‘The Bottomless Hole’ (‘Singing Bones’)
‘Back in My Day’ (‘Unseen’)
‘The Loneliness of Magnets’ (‘Honey Moon’)
‘Weightless Again’ (‘Through the Trees’)
’24-Hour Store’ (‘Singing Bones’)
‘Far from Any Road’ (‘Singing Bones’)
‘Don’t be Scared’ (‘In the Air’)
‘Darling, My Darling’ (‘Honey Moon’)
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