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Handsome Family - Memorial Hall, Sheffield, 19/3/2105

  by Nicky Crewe

published: 18 / 4 / 2015

Handsome Family - Memorial Hall, Sheffield, 19/3/2105


Nicky Crewe enjoys husband-and-wife duo the Handsome Family's unusual Gothic-tinged Americana a gig at the Memorial Hall in Sheffield

A trip to see the Handsome Family seemed the right thing to do on the eve of the Spring equinox, a solar eclipse and the International Day of Happiness. The venue has a living room feel, but it was built to commemorate the dead of World War One. The mood was set for an evening of gothic themes and dark revelations. Brett and Rennie Sparks are the Handsome Family, together for over twenty years, bringing a strange and unique twist to their performances and their music that only a close relationship can sustain. From recent interviews I know they like UK audiences because they listen. Why wouldn’t we? Their stories are as grim as any Child ballads, exploring the taboos that others dare not put into words, let alone songs. In an interview with Reginald D. Hunter they declared that they were more comfortable singing about murder than sex. They were supported by Daniel Knox, who set the mood, with his well-worn song sheets, and dark humour. His lyrics covered the finer points of time travel, necrophilia, ‘corroded’ people and imaginary friends. They were haunting on many levels. Like Brett he has a deep dark beard and a deep dark voice, taking us to deep, dark places. His tale of a man crying “Why was I born?” in a Sheffield pub resonated through the night. Suspend disbelief, accept that the Handsome Family are singing of a world where poles may flip, Spring has to be ushered in by a sad winter song or a ritual blood letting, the Golden Gate bridge is for jumping from and their home town of Alberquerque is a place of golden sunsets and constant criminal acts. There are revelations. Rennie suffers from insomnia, imagining things getting big and small. Brett mistrusts happiness. As a woman from Long Island, she had a crush on Billy Joel. No birds came to their Chicago bird feeder for the four and a half years they lived there. Her biggest regret was not seeing the pony Tiny Tina at a State Fair. There’s a new song about it. Their ‘Wilderness’ songs were about the natural world. There were songs about owls as well as tiny ponies. We even got to join in with sound effects. They sang another new song about the gold of Alberquerque sunsets. There are beautiful 1930s gold plaster gazelles gazing down at the stage in the Memorial Hall. A perfect setting. Her light singing voice is a counterpoint in harmony to Brett’s. Her humour brings a lightness to the concert too, though it is always dark. This is a celebration of the shadow side. It seems that their music might be a way to deal with demons, but there was a moment in a song about Brett’s hospitalisation with a bi-polar episode when the dealing got too much. He decided to stop the song part way through. It could have been difficult but she carried the moment. It was an insight into their relationship, beyond onstage interruptions and banter. The song lyrics take us from fratricide and sisters, to rattlesnakes and bones, down dark highways by way of knives and nooses. They are outlaw songs. These are songs of setting suns and rising moons. There’s something of the night about them. As Rennie said, if you need the Carter Family crossed with ‘Reservoir Dogs’, come to them. They have gained new fans with their theme song for ‘True Detective’. Most of the audience seemed to have shared their world for ages. It was a perfect evening, a shared glimpse of the shadows and spirits we all recognise but don’t always acknowledge. I was reminded of another Gothic family I loved as a youngster, rushing home from school to catch ‘The Addams Family’ series on TV. There was something familiar about their relationship, a touch of Morticia and Gomez, indulgent and otherworldly. Home before the witching hour, it was a perfect ritual for welcoming in the Spring.

Also at Memorial Hall, Sheffield

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Handsome Family - Memorial Hall, Sheffield, 19/3/2105

Handsome Family - Memorial Hall, Sheffield, 19/3/2105

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