If there ever was a band that could be described as the essence of modern Americana, it is Chicago’s The Handsome Family. The husband and wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks, with an occasional cast of supporting musicians, would probably prefer the term American music. Their combination of all things rural filtered through modern musical glasses, Brett’s incredible baritone voice and Rennie’s multilayered lyrics, often layered with a hefty dose of good old American Gothic, have prompted some very imaginative comments to describe their music, as amongst other things “Ambrose Bierce on crack”.
Their imaginative music has always attracted other better-known collaborators like Jeff Tweedy and has landed them a cover theme for the TV series that fits their music perfectly – ‘True Detective’. Yet, on the other hand, the character of their music and their sparse live line-ups, often just Brett and Rennie, has always been best exemplified on a small stage. Back in May 2004, Brett and Rennie played an incredible small stage set in The Kleine Zaal (Small Hall) of Amsterdam’s Paradiso, itself a cult venue located in a former church. Even though the duo were seemingly pissed at the poor promotion of the gig that brought in less than a hundred people, they played an impressive set that gave them the chance to exploit all the advantages of a small venue, something that suits their music perfectly.
The instrumentation, Brett on guitar and Rennie mostly on autoharp and a few others, was clear and shining. Brett’s strong voice was able to accentuate every nuance in Rennie’s lyrics, and with the excellent acoustics of the small stage, the audience was fully immersed in the dark atmosphere of their music, something that might have been lost on a bigger stage. They certainly deserved double or triple the audience present.