Live Review: The Handsome Family + Frontier Ruckus, Union Chapel, London – 21st May 2024

Photo: J. Aird

A grey overcast London and rain threatening – to some that might seem the perfect accompaniment to a night with The Handsome Family with their dark and twisted tales – and in a church no less.  True, to some extent, but there’s another side to Brett and Rennie Sparks where their weird tales sparkle with a golden magical light.  Which way might they veer on this evening is naturally hard to say but the likelihood is that there would be a good showing from the excellent recent album ‘Hollow‘ which recklessly pokes into darker recesses where squirrels, raccoons and maybe worse are apt to be lurking.  With the grey skies turning to a steady downpour it was a wet audience that dragged themselves into the Union Chapel as the doors opened at 7pm, keen to get the best seats possible in the unreserved pews. A slight disappointment is that the Union Chapel’s kiosk no longer offers hot beverages – the nave already being off limits for drinks from the bar – that traditional cup (or mug) that cheers and warms is now a thing of the past it appears.  The Merch stall by the main entrance was generously supplied in a range of formats with ‘Hollow‘, and ‘Hollow‘ alone, which tended to underscore that earlier thought.

Photo: J. Aird

Pretty promptly at 8pm, Brett and Rennie Sparks were joined on stage by Jason Toth on drums and Alex Mcmahon on keyboards and electric guitar and things launched immediately into the customary off-kilter strangeness that one associates with The Handsome Family. As Brett wrestled with his acoustic guitar and various last-minute stage arrangements, the nattily dressed – courtesy of the British Heart Foundation – and already prepared Rennie, sporting a violin bass, filled in with tales of the COVID lockdowns and sleeping pill abuse that had led through nocturnal screaming in her sleep to the song ‘Joseph‘, a song which mixes acts of random destruction with seeming ritual preparations for…well, what, exactly isn’t ever made clear. One’s imagination fills the empty space in this verbal Rorschach test. This was followed rapidly by an old favourite ‘The Bottomless Hole‘ and its weird tale of insatiable and obsessive curiosity taken to the point of self-destruction – surely a metaphor for a self-destructive side of the human condition. It’s a strange thing that no matter how weird the songs get it is the power of the delivery and the skill of the writing that makes the listener go along with the strange confection being spun in front of them.

Photo: J. Aird

Maybe it’s the constant between song banter that allows a song, “the fourth saddest Christmas song,” no less, the country loping ‘So Much Wine‘ bearable.  Self destruction and alcoholism is so much easy to handle once one knows that Rennie’s mother, who generally disapproves of her music, liked this song once Phoebe Bridgers had covered it.  The jazzy ‘The Loneliness of Magnets‘ allowed Brett to demonstrate unnerving vocal dexterity as he plunged into declamatory depths before going to a fluttering high note.

Photo: J. Aird

Rennie swapped from violin bass to banjo for the environmental revenge of ‘My Sister’s Tiny Hands‘, and, banjo fans, we can report that on this song she adopted an interesting very loose thumb and strum technique, the perfect accompaniment to snake murder.  This was all but build up for what may very well be the definitively most Handsome Family song of all, ‘Back In My Day‘ which blends strange imagery with outright nostalgia, and the implied mockery thereof – and whilst there’s the unplanned political commentary of “You could drink from the river” it’s hard to not be affected by “music sounded better / recorded on rings of ice / and as the songs turned to water / we couldn’t help but cry / way back in the good days / the ones you didn’t see / everything was better.

Grey doves, cranky neighbours and Stevie Nicks’ cocaine habit link together to introduce ‘King of Everything‘, a glorious folk pop song with creatures in turn surveying their realm, but with a twist as the pastoral scene is not quite it all might be – the  bird in the high tree is hunted by a cat and the quiet observer remarks “Me in my chair as the pills reach my brain I call out to the bees make honey from my pain.” And it is Angela Lansbury’s cocaine habit that ushers in the big hit ‘Far From Any Road‘ on which Rennie shares lead vocals for the first time. There’s more stage switching around as Brett sits with the world’s tiniest keyboard and Rennie reverts to banjo on which she relentlessly picks out a percussive pick-pinch pattern (we know you appreciate these details banjo fans) through the ominous ‘Two Black Shoes.‘  Having sampled heavily from ‘Hollow‘ there was still time for a quartet of back catalogue dives with ‘Octupus‘, the lovely and honest ‘Weightless Again‘, the eerie ‘24-Hour Shop‘ which features an unfeasibly long pedal steel and weird electronic sounds solo which perhaps even Brett is surprised by and, finally, a sparkling with electric guitar ‘Frogs’.

A three song encore ranged from the earliest to the latest. Starting with the very first song Brett and Rennie wrote together, the gruesome modern murder ballad ‘Arlene‘, a song which unsettlingly revels in the murderer’s point of view, followed by the document of what is “At least 30% of what our job is,” the endless ennui of ‘In Airports‘ before closing with the last song from ‘Hollow‘, the rather appropriate ‘Good Night‘ which is humorously self-referential with its line about “We’ll be out by the merch table after we’ve packed our junk” mixed in alongside nods to all the others who dwell in the night – skinwalkers and bluesmen at crossroads hoping to cut a deal with Satan. It’s a song that seems destined to close shows for a good while, at least until it becomes just too obvious a thing to do. And sure enough, after what was by any definition a perfect gig, Brett Sparks could indeed be seen down at the Merch stall – life imitating art.

Photo: J. Aird

Opener Frontier Ruckus also have an excellent new album in the shape of ‘On The Northline‘, which features a blend of modern folk – think Darlingside or Milk Carton Kids – with a Mercury Rev like edge added by the saw playing of Zachary Nichols who joined the original duo of guitar player, lead singer and songwriter Matthew Milia and banjo player David Jones.

Photo: J. Aird

Although Matthew Milia claimed that the venue was somewhat overwhelming – they’ll be playing their spiritual UK home The Windmill in Brixton in a few weeks – there was little sign of nerves in this short set of Milia’s closely observed and word heavy songs. He claims Dylan as an inspiration and that’s hardly a surprise.  Opener ‘Everywhere But Beside You‘ showed off the unusual combination of guitar, banjo and “tiny trumpet” to fine effect on a song that picks at the lost and lonely threads of a love affair when “everywhere but beside you felt wrong.

Photo: J. Aird

Magdalene (That’s Not Your Name)‘ is another song of drifting love, which requires a too late to spend a gift voucher trip to a Myer – explained as being like an Asda – which contains such tripping poetry as “the Autumn girls keep asking me why I’m overdressed / They offered me some medicine and I guess I acquiesced.

Photo: J. Aird

An interlude of sorts was offered by Zachary Nichols who provided a weirdly beautiful ‘Moon River‘ played on a toothless singing saw, with just a gentle banjo accompaniment.  It acted as a beautiful prelude to the title track of the latest album ‘On the Northline‘ which bowls along apace with a long-time relationship showing the fraying edges of fifteen years or more of wear since the first High School kiss – it has a scrabbling around undertone of a Willy Vlautin song.  It’s a powerful and noteworthy song, delivered with style.  And style is the adjective for the set closer – with Matthew Milia noting, as he put on a harmonica holder, that “it would be remiss not to test out the acoustic” the band shuffled together and took themselves off-mike for a wonderful ‘What You Are‘ with its nervous anxiety and overthinking of aging, lines like “you are growing cold and lonely” framed by that dramatically strange and subtly unnerving sound of the singing saw.  A short set, well received, and a longer set somewhere else really is needed.  Maybe in Brixton.

About Jonathan Aird 2746 Articles
Sure, I could climb high in a tree, or go to Skye on my holiday. I could be happy. All I really want is the excitement of first hearing The Byrds, the amazement of decades of Dylan's music, or the thrill of seeing a band like The Long Ryders live. That's not much to ask, is it?
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