“For us to have Loose Records here tonight and for us to still be married…” is Rennie Sparks’s wryly improbable reflection towards the beginning of this evening’s performance in Hackney – a nice acknowledgement of the record label who have long supported them but also a sly nod to the unlikelihood of a musical and personal marriage of such longevity. While such lengthy partnerships might seem improbable to Rennie, it’s certainly propitious for us, the audience, who are able to able to enjoy a live rendition of their 1998 album, ‘Through The Trees,’ in all its glory tonight.
This third album from Brett and Rennie Sparks (aka The Handsome Family, aka the Morticia and Gomez Addams of alt-country), was also the first release by the couple to bring them to the attention of a wider audience. And what a fascinating duo they are – Rennie capable of elemental muse of the darkest Gothic poetry but an unsteady singer, while Brett’s strengths in musical composition and his wonderful baritone that’s improving with age like burnished mahogany, don’t run to the lyrical dexterity of his wife. The between song banter of the couple is also a joy to behold and often runs to witty and sarcastic asides at each other’s expense. But any animus Rennie might have felt towards Brett after 28 years of marriage has apparently been negated by her easy access to a cannabis bar in their home town of Albuquerque, New Mexico which now means that, for her, “everything he says sounds great.”
Essentially, tonight is a straight run through of the ‘Through The Trees’ album with some added extras – the band varying the encores on this tour. Accompanied by drummer and hugely talented percussionist Jason Toth and multi-instrumentalist Alex McMahon, the foursome conjure up a rich musical palette, the array of instruments providing a fitting backdrop to the black humour of the songs’ lyrics.
The opening track, ‘Weightless Again’ has still lost none of its power to move – the autoharp providing a melancholic undertow to a song the Guardian once described as “one of the 100 best songs ever written about heartbreak.” Less a love tune in fact, it’s actually more a dual meditation on mortality/suicide, while the contrast between the couple drinking gin and reading Moby Dick in a motel room, has always felt like a reflection on the thin gauze that separates them (and our modern civilised world) from the barely surviving American Indian antecedents of the song, whose perilous existence is threatened by Westerner acquired TB – that is, when they’re not imperilling their own lives by forgetting what are the essential requirements of fire starting.
For The Handsome Family, the duality of life and death means the Grim Reaper is an ever present: in the form of the twin sister killed by a snake in the affecting, ‘My Sister’s Tiny Hands’ – but even in death new life is born – as demonstrated by the orange lizards which pour forth from the bleached horse’s head in the song, ‘I Fell’. On any night where a full album performance wasn’t the minimum requirement, ‘Down In The Ground’ would no more likely survive in their set than many of the Handsome Family’s songs’ inhabitants – Rennie’s affected Appalachian sounding raspy drawl proving too much of a distraction – but it’s probably the only false note of the evening.
‘The Giant of Illinois,’ their tribute to Robert Wadlow, is possibly the standout track on the record, although it’s run a close second by the crystalline sounding majesty of ‘Cathedrals’. The performance builds towards the one-two punch of ‘The Woman Downstairs’ and ‘Last Night I Went Out Walking,’ Brett’s wonderful baritone almost a Capella on the latter, with minimal instrumental accompaniment throughout. The final song on the album, ‘My Ghost,’ contrasts Brett Sparks’s genuine anger at being institutionalised in the bi-polar ward of a mental hospital with the magnificent grandeur of his vocal delivery.
At the end of the last song, Rennie Sparks thanks the audience “from the very very bottom of our dark hearts,” before they return for three encores. Somewhat inevitably perhaps, they start with ‘Far From Any Road,’ the theme tune from season 1 of True Detective – what Brett Sparks refers to as “our HBO Money.” It’s close in sound to ‘The Ballad of Cable Hogue’ by Calexico, perhaps showing the subtle influence the change in geography that the Sparks’ move from Chicago to New Mexico has wrought, and like Calexico’s song, it perfectly summons the spirits of the South Western US desert, alluring in its beauty but deadly at the same time.
In truth, The Handsome Family would probably have rounded off the evening in better style if they’d ended with the second encore, ‘So Much Wine’ rather than ‘When That Helicopter Comes,’ which turns into a somewhat messy, extended jam with support act, Morgan Geer of Drunken Prayer helping out on guitar and vocals. But no matter: ‘Through The Trees’ will comfortably survive a further 20 years’ listening because not only is the album’s subject matter timeless, but it’s also freighted with sufficient humour, pathos, and musicality to appeal to another generation of music fans.