A regal hall provided an oddly fitting setting for macabre masters The Handsome Family to wow their delighted Bristol crowd
n the splendour of Bristol’s St George’s hall, with Jesus Christ watching on from the back of the stage, Brett Sparks greets the audience with a “welcome to the service”. Considering the setting and the fact that Brett looks like a well-travelled preacher, hirsute and suited, it’s a fitting opening. But the music of The Handsome Family couldn’t be further from the teachings of the Lord. Instead it is a gothic reflection on American life, like a picture that Edward Hopper might have painted after a séance with Edgar Allan Poe.
Without a support act, the husband and wife duo (and percussionist Jason Toth) play a double set which mines their musical past and contains all of their creepy hallmarks. Their unique style of macabre Americana is filled with frogs singing in the swampland, coyotes howling, tiny horses at the state fair and drive-thru restaurants which guarantee that their onion rings will burn the roof off your mouth. As Rennie, in black dress and striped stockings, introduces each song with a tale taller than the last, it is obvious that she is revelling in her endearing creepiness. Before breaking into Far From Any Road, the sleeper hit and audience expanding title song from True Detective, she gleefully declares that it had escaped somehow “despite our best efforts to keep all our songs unheard”.
In terms of stage patter, the enchanting Rennie is undoubtedly the star, but once each song starts she hands the stage to her husband (taking an accompanying role on harmonies and either autoharp or ukulele). Brett’s vocals alternate from a gruff bass to a soothing country tenor which matches the twang of his trusted telecaster. There is also much humour in his approach, in the way he pronounces the word “wings” during Owls, his bi-lingual backing vocals on The Sad Milkman and his wilfully ramshackle guitar playing on The Loneliness Of Magnets. After all, murder ballads and historical tragedies need a little lightening up.
By playing crowd favourites such as The Giant Of Illinois, Weightless Again and My Sister’s Tiny Hands and giving a hilarious glimpse into their marriage, bickering all night about a dream Rennie recently had in which Brett removed all the furniture from the house, the audience couldn’t ask for anything more from a gig. As they leave the stage, humbled by their new found popularity, it seems that neither could The Handsome Family.
Words: Duncan Haskell / Pictures: Aaron Slater
It’s not quite the same as the live performance, but if you’re not yet familiar with the music of The Handsome Family, then you can check out a six-song sampler via the embedded SoundCloud player below…