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The Handsome Family (live at Islington Assembly Rooms)

29 May 2013

The Handsome Family tour poster 2013Recently refurbished and nicely polished, the venue presents a fairly comfortable setting for seeing The Handsome Family.  The audience is calm and collected, fairly covered in beards and almost certainly here straight from work.  One gets into an involuntary beard comparison routine right away and my own observation is that they’ve definitely outdone Brett Sparks, who seems to have had a pretty neat and tidy trim compared to his recent publicity photos.  I wonder if all those other guys are disappointed.

Husband and wife Brett and Rennie take the stage without any long delays, (I suppose there were no puppies backstage this year) and delve directly into “Octopus.” They play it somewhat faster than on record, with Rennie making a much more hearable presence as well, while Brett sings, if not softly, then much more subdued.  Those who were expecting to hear a live version of Wildnerness played straight are soon corrected and the follow up is “So Much Wine.”  Rennie says it’s their saddest Christmas song and that it is illegal for them to play it in some states on Christmas Day.  It certainly is a sad song, a wonderful melancholy with clever words and a brilliant capture of a feeling, a familiar and futile co-dependent haze of reason.

“Frog” follows and as this being one of my favourite of their new songs I’m pleased.  I love the entreaty of this song, the plea is irresistible to something deep down and makes me think of summer night times outside with my grandparents showing me the wonders of fireflies by moonlight. On the long (record) version of this song the guitar is so sublime as to create a soul tug which is utterly compelling and reminiscent of so many 1970s Southern rock ballads which made the whole guitar solo thing sensible at the time.  The swelling guitar soar is much shorter live which is a bit disappointing, but perhaps limiting that kind of self indulgence onstage is in itself sensible for these times.

So the show takes up a pattern of new song, old song and Rennie seems to be taking the lead for most if not all of the talking.  There is always a sort of hope of interaction when one sees a band live, of being closer and more involved and maybe feeling like one knows the performers more intimately for bearing witness.  Rennie is very good at delivering this.  Her casual banter and storytelling song introductions are a lot like someone you know letting you in on a secret.  She is funny and warm and tonight seems somehow much more confident and forthright than when I last saw The Handsome Family about three years ago.  She sings out and plays her various instruments and is so present and pretty; she plays with her vocals and lets her voice to some of the weird things which make more sense live than on record, as on “Down In The Ground.”  It took me a long time to like this song on record: Rennie’s voice is all weird and stretched out and that along with the scary words, well, I found it too creepy.  Watching her pull it off live is brilliant – equally disturbing, but as she’s in that scary place with you, much more attractive.

Brett says little and sings beautifully.  His big booming voice seems so effortless and natural.  His brow barely creases as he makes the hall echo and he keeps himself very steady and calm.  I start to wonder if this show is more typical of how they perform live or if Brett has caught a British cold and Rennie is looking after him.  They also play “Bottomless Hole” and of course “Glow Worm,” making one think more along a theme of earth core journeys.  Historical figures are featured as well; we learn a lot about General Custer and Rennie’s theories on Mary Sweeney are given.  I always like the fact that one learns something from the Handsome Family.

Another new favourite is “Owls” which is a wonderful country waltz with a very amusing story behind it.  The little bits of laughter as the lines are delivered reminds me there are a few hundred other people here so I have a look around to check how they are taking the show.  Rapt attention, little movement beyond swaying, beards flopping and nodding, big hunky smiles – I’d say everyone is pretty pleased.  The Handsome Family are so odd, and so different; their fans are quite devotional.  I like to pick up snips of what other people say about live bands but here there is no chatter beyond the sincerely amused chuckling.  I do wonder that people don’t just let go and have a little dance now and again, but this is London, not Asheville NC, so that’s just not going to happen.

Still musing on the notion of knowing The Handsome Family as folks one knows rather better than performers, I think it would be great to have them round for dinner and a back porch sing-a-long.  I like it very well that they are achieving a level of success as is apparent with this big international audience, even though that probably reduces the likelihood of their ever having the time or inclination to come over one Friday night.  How lovely that really good honest music can still be the provider for its own makers in some if not all instances.  The Handsome Family are more deserving than many of their successes in this respect.  I don’t stick around after the show to try to chat with them or extend any more dinner invites.  It seems pointless and besides, my plus one is a woman who’s just gotten off a plane after about 20 hours of travelling.  She declares that The Handsome Family are kind of unusual and ironic and states they seem very happy about that.  “Plus,” she adds, “his voice is out of this world.”

It strikes me that there is no real companionable cross over I can force between this world of mine and theirs, so I contentedly take away the resonance of songs I am sure to be humming for the foreseeable future.

-Maryna Fontenoy-

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