Review and Photography by John Bentley

Husband and wife duo Rennie and Brett Sparks have been performing as The Handsome Family since the mid-1990s and have a string of critically acclaimed albums under their belts. Currently based in New Mexico in the USA their style might be described as something like gothic alt-country noir. Their songs frequently focus on the dark side of life, with death, madness and general strangeness emerging as subjects time and time again. However, their unsettling lyrics are delivered set to gorgeous timeless tunes and, particularly live, with a wicked sense of humour. The current UK tour is centred on a performance of their classic 1998 album ‘Through the Trees’, celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

The Handsome Family, Hebden Bridge Trades Club, 08/03/18

The support act, Drunken Prayer, perfectly complements The Handsome Family in style and mood. Drunken Prayer is singer-songwriter Morgan Geer who, as well as recording and touring in his own right, is also the current guitar player with alt-country band Freakwater. With a singing voice that sounds remarkably close to that of Randy Newman, Geer delivers a well-crafted and compelling set of songs, accompanying himself on his Fender Telecaster.

Drunken Prayer, Hebden Bridge Trades Club, 08/03/18

The current Handsome Family line-up includes drummer Jason Toth, who has been with the band for some time, and guitarist / keyboard player Alex McMahon. These guys are accomplished multi-instrumentalists and through the evening turn in some impressive playing, including on melodica (Toth) and steel-guitar (McMahon). As well as singing Rennie plays bass, autoharp and banjo, while this evening Brett sticks to acoustic guitar. Last time Gig Junkies reviewed The Handsome Family at Leeds in 2015, Brett was really cutting loose with some wild Fender guitar playing, but tonight he leaves the electric guitar to Alex McMahon. The playing is impeccable throughout the set, with the musicians constantly picking up different instruments to suit each song.

The Handsome Family, Hebden Bridge Trades Club, 08/03/18

The gig kicks off with ‘Weightless Again’, the spooky opening song which sets the mood for the ‘Through the Trees’ album: “This is why people OD on pills and jump from the Golden Gate Bridge, anything to feel weightless again”. During the evening we are taken on a journey through the album. One of the real joys of a Handsome Family gig is the banter and jokey bickering between Rennie and Brett in between the doom-laden songs. The banter really starts to kick in before ‘Where the Birch Trees Lean’: on the subject of trees Rennie suddenly announces out of the blue, as if it’s a really logical conclusion, that she doesn’t like pine trees. They are rather evil apparently! We get to hear about how Brett and Rennie met and their first kiss: she took him to a renowned fish restaurant, but unfortunately it had become a carpet shop, which rather ruined things. She describes Brett as a man of mystery: she claims he never turns to look at her and she couldn’t pick him out in an identity parade. It’s also drummer Jason Toth’s birthday and we are prompted to sing him Happy Birthday.

The Handsome Family, Hebden Bridge Trades Club, 08/03/18

The gig comes to a natural end, with ‘My Ghost’, the last track on the ‘Though the Trees’ album. The song describes Brett’s confinement in an institution following a mental breakdown: “And I won’t get any cookies or tea, till I stop quoting Nietzsche and brush my teeth and comb my hair” goes the song.

The Handsome Family, Hebden Bridge Trades Club, 08/03/18

Toth and McMahon leave the stage, but Rennie and Brett seem to get marooned – it’s a small club with constrained exits for the artists. They confer as Brett sups from a bottle of beer. They decide against trying to leave the stage and, as the other members return, they knuckle down to the encore. The paper setlist on the stage has a few possible encore songs scribbled on it: there are choices to be made, complicated by shouted audience suggestions which Brett and Rennie dismiss, probably as they haven’t rehearsed those songs. For the first encore song they opt for ‘The Bottomless Hole’, a twisted tale of how a farmer is tempted to explore an apparently bottomless hole, down which he is drawn as if by sirens. That’s followed by ‘The Loneliness of Magnets’, featuring some jazzy guitar-work from McMahon. They finish with possibly their best known song, ‘Far From Any Road’, a song that was used in the ‘True Detective’ TV crime series.

The Handsome Family, Hebden Bridge Trades Club, 08/03/18

And so a beautiful evening draws to a close. Rather than a mere rock and roll gig it feels like we’ve been at a cosy family evening with The Handsome Family, sat around a fire while they regale us with chat and tell us their strange stories set to music.

The Handsome Family, Hebden Bridge Trades Club, 08/03/18

Setlist: Weightless Again; My Sister’s Tiny Hands; Stalled; Where the Birch Trees Lean; Cathedrals; Down in the Ground; The Giant Of Illinois; Down in the Valley of the Hollow Logs; I Fell; The Woman Downstairs; Last Night I Went Out Walking; Bury Me Here; My Ghost. Encore: The Bottomless Hole; The Loneliness of Magnets; Far From Any Road.

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