The last time the Handsome Family visited these shores they played the Grade II listed Hackney Round Chapel, an appropriate venue for their 20 year celebration of the ‘Through The Trees’ album. Tonight’s end-of-tour performance is in the more intimate surrounds of Nell’s Jazz and Blues club and there are no restrictions placed on what features from their extensive back catalogue – Rennie Sparks late on describing the whole performance as something of a tangent.
Such a description is probably a more apt summary of their offbeat between song conversation, the banter informed by the fact they’re both suffering from a repetition of the ill health that dogged them when they toured earlier this year: Rennie reporting that she’d taken a surfeit of cold medicine and was willing to accompany any audience member to an adjoining alley for a palliative dose of cannabis, while Brett unfurls a sufficient amount of toilet roll throughout the evening’s performance to blow his nose.
The dark humour that must surely help leaven a heavy touring schedule and potential overexposure to one another, extends to their material, much of which is renowned for being coal black in nature with ‘My Sister’s Tiny Hands’ (“this is a song about snakes”) opening proceedings. Regular supporting musicians Alex McMahon and Jason Toth prove the subject of their ribbing as well, the former allegedly playing a pedal steel guitar made of human bone, giving it that special “bone tone.” Jason Toth’s attire also proves suitable comedic inspiration.
If it sometimes feels as though reminders of Christmas seem to come unwelcomely early each year, then a happy exception to this is the song ‘So Much Wine,’ a melancholic admonishment to a lover for their alcoholism during the festive period: “I had nothing to say on Christmas Day/When you threw all your clothes in the snow/When you burnt your hair, knocked over chairs/I just tried to stay out of your way.” Brett’s baritone, even adjusted for blocked nasal passages, is still an instrument of beauty and the song a salutary reminder that ‘Through The Trees’ is far from their only magnum opus – previous outings such as ‘In The Air’ – from which this song is drawn, equally worthy of discovery.
And the song introductions keep on coming. “This is a song about watching snow fall” – by way of preface to a performance of ‘Stalled’- which along with its follow up, the majestic ‘Weightless Again‘ – are apparently evidence according to Rennie of the band’s embrace of Freud’s “oceanic feeling.” If that’s intended to mean a sense of having an indissoluble bond with the external world then their sense of wonder at nature in all its forms is a centrepiece of any Handsome Family show, from the delight expressed by Rennie at the raccoons that parade in front of their Albuquerque home to the ‘Octopus‘ celebrated in the song of the same name.
From favourite cephalopods to favourite scientists: Nicolas Tesla gets his own dedication (‘Tesla’s Hotel Room’) – perhaps a rare example of where their songwriting model of adding musical compositions onto previously written song lyrics doesn’t work quite so effectively. A protracted instrumental intro precedes ‘Far From Any Road,’ an essential prerequisite of any of their shows nowadays and another reminder of how the New Mexico desert, their home since 2001, has impinged on their consciousness. The band conclude their set with the trio of ‘Back In My Day’ (their “anti-technology song”), ‘The Bottomless Hole,’ (which other band do you know has a song about sailing down a bottomless hole in a rusty old bathtub?) and ‘The Loneliness of Magnets.’
Encores comprise ‘The Giant of Illinois – their moving tribute to Robert Wadlow – ‘In The Air,’ which features a brief, funky foray during its intro into ‘Viva Las Vegas,’ before they venture way back to celebrate the beginning of their career with ‘Arlene,’ their first ever murder ballad. Evidence, were it needed, that there’s more to these two than songs of death, darkness and the macabre is conveyed in ‘All The Time In Airports’ and finally, the lonely shoppers who wander the aisles of the ‘24 Hour Store’ as ghosts make the automatic doors open and close.
If tonight perhaps had an end of term feel, lacking the grandiosity of performance that accompanied their 20th anniversary delivery of ‘Through the Trees,’ then the delighted audience reception was still proof that Rennie and Brett Sparks are an entirely unique experience and always welcome visitors to the UK.
With special thanks to David Handley for the use of his photos.