Not a gig in the conventional sense

The Handsome Family | Pavilion Theatre, Brighton
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Handsome Family don't play gigs in the conventional sense. For a start, Rennie Sparks, the ex-New York acid casualty-turned-writer of sublime lyrics, has to keep telling herself that she is here to play songs and could we please remind her to stop talking. Her husband Brett, the Texas-bred, former born-again Baptist, still can't get his head around his drum machine ("you'd think we'd just get a drummer," he mutters) and the prolonged pauses between songs give Rennie ample opportunity to pontificate over such surreal matters as why moths are drawn to light bulbs, and her incredible shrinking head.

The Handsome Family don't play gigs in the conventional sense. For a start, Rennie Sparks, the ex-New York acid casualty-turned-writer of sublime lyrics, has to keep telling herself that she is here to play songs and could we please remind her to stop talking. Her husband Brett, the Texas-bred, former born-again Baptist, still can't get his head around his drum machine ("you'd think we'd just get a drummer," he mutters) and the prolonged pauses between songs give Rennie ample opportunity to pontificate over such surreal matters as why moths are drawn to light bulbs, and her incredible shrinking head.

The evening lies somewhere between a piece of stand-up comedy and a marriage guidance meeting. Brett and Rennie's good-natured bickering has become something of a trademark for Handsome Family shows and tonight is no exception. "She just came over and asked me if I was in tune," Brett tells us at the end of their opening number, "A Beautiful Thing". "No I didn't," protests Rennie. "I asked him if he'd remembered to change his underwear."

If their shows are on the eccentric side, their music doesn't quite fit with conventional notions of country either. Brett and Rennie's songs are an enchanting mix of the macabre and the mundane, the complex and the simple, each underpinned by sensuous melodies. Live, Rennie's words gather even greater shape amid her husband's stripped-down compositions and soulful baritone vocals.

The lyrics draw on dark themes - death, violence, alcoholism - and twist them to meet their own darkly comic ends. "Up Falling Rock Hill" tells the story of a man who murdered his brother and then became fascinated by the sight of ants crawling across his body. "This song is full of blood. Sorry," apologises Rennie. Aside from the drum machine, there are other hiccups. As they begin "So Much Wine", a tale of a pathologically drunken Christmas, Brett realises he has forgotten his harmonica and is forced to start again. "I need a drink. Could someone get me a drink?" he says, mopping his brow in mock agitation.

Despite the difficult start, Brett sings the song with almost inconceivable conviction. In her less loquacious moments, Rennie is a serene presence too, singing quietly and cradling her zither in her arms like a new-born baby. The new addition of Brett's brother Daryl on guitar fleshes out the sound (and, to his obvious delight, allows Brett to play a washboard during "My Sister's Tiny Hands"). Clearly enamoured with his new position, Daryl takes out a camera and snaps the audience. But then that's the Handsome Family; contrary to the very last.

Comments