Review and Photography by John Bentley

The Handsome Family, Leeds Irish Centre, 16-3-15

Nowadays country music is a pretty broad genre and, since around the time of Gram Parsons, mutated versions, often dubbed ‘alternative country’ and ‘Americana’, have proliferated. A band with a very quirky take on alt-country are The Handsome Family, who offer a rather unique Gothic country-noire flavour. They’ve performed in Leeds on several past occasions and this time it’s at the palatial, by rock music standards, Irish Centre. The gig is in the posh Tara Suite, laid out with tables and chairs for the comfort of punters.

It seems a stroke of genius that the support act is one that perfectly complements the off-beat Handsome Family. Daniel Knox is a Chicago-based singer and composer who tackles some very odd and difficult subjects. His narrative songs are often voyeuristic and it’s no surprise that he has collaborated with David Lynch. He has a rich, deep voice and accompanies himself on stage with an electronic keyboard, sometimes using it to produce a straight piano sound and at other times a complex, layered, often discordant electronic backing. His performance style seems to be somewhere between John Grant and latter-day Scott Walker. He introduces the songs as he performs them. Among his song subjects are aversion to germs (“Don’t Touch Me”), an imaginary childhood friend called David Charmichael, videoing car accidents and shopping malls. Strange stuff indeed and very convincingly delivered. I have a feeling we will be hearing a lot more from Mr Knox, whose most recent album, the eponymously titled ‘Daniel Knox’, was released in February.

Daniel Knox, Leeds Irish Centre, 16-3-15

The Handsome Family are married couple Brett and Rennie Sparks, together with drummer Jason Toth. Brett composes the music and sings most of the songs. Rennie writes the lyrics, which are full of darkness, death and the macabre, along with weird humour. The stage set-up is interesting, with the couples’ microphones on opposite sides of the stage. From these opposed positions they trade banter all evening.

“This is a Christmas song”, Rennie says of first number ‘So Much Wine’. “No it’s not”, argues Brett, “‘White Christmas’ is a Christmas song”. Well the song is set at Christmas, but otherwise it’s about how drinking too much doesn’t help lives and relationships. Rennie tells us they have fried beer back home – “you’d like it”, she tells us. “No they wouldn’t” responds Brett. And so the song explanations, discussions and amicable disagreements go on all evening. There’s never a dull moment.

The Handsome Family, Leeds Irish Centre, 16-3-15

The songs performed range from across their career of more than ten albums. Old favourites include ‘The Bottomless Hole’, an Edgar Allen Poe-ish ditty, featuring Brett’s deepest singing voice, about how the narrator finds an apparently bottomless hole on his farm and his curiosity fatally draws him to abandon everything and go down it. The spooky ‘My Ghost’ apparently came about as a result of a mental breakdown and institutionalisation suffered by Brett. More conventional and featuring a duet with Rennie, ‘Far From Any Road’ is one of their best known songs, as it was used in the ‘True Detective’ TV crime drama series. ‘The Giant of Illinois’ is about the difficult life of Robert Wadlow, the world’s tallest man (also written about by Sufjan Stevens).

So, some serious stuff, but plenty of black humour too. And there’s also general craziness, as with ‘The Loneliness of Magnets’ (a guy driven crazy by working with magnets) and ‘Owls’, from the latest album ‘Wilderness’, where all the tracks are about different creatures. It seems there are too many owls in the blue house, “Snowy, Horned and Screech, Thousands of Owls, All flapping their wings”.

The Handsome Family, Leeds Irish Centre, 16-3-15

“Play ‘Frogs’” shouts a voice from the back of the hall. “We’ll get to that”, responds Rennie, which they do later. She apologises for their animal obsession. The song is a celebration of nature, listening to frogs singing in the hot, still night air of the American South, and it features some nice duetting between the two and tasty guitar mangling from Brett.

As they finish the final song, ‘Don’t Be Scared’, Rennie thanks us all for being so nice to them. They return to the stage for a two song encore. Rennie jokes about finding her husband’s guitar picks everywhere, even in the shower. “The implications?!” exclaims an amused Brett.

The Handsome Family, Leeds Irish Centre, 16-3-15

The verdict? We know from their albums that The Handsome Family have a great song repertoire, but live they really are something. The songs truly come to life and the musicianship is first rate. In particular Brett’s electric guitar playing is becoming reminiscent of Alan Sparhawk’s (Low) finest and drummer Jason provides very subtle accompaniment throughout, including contributing some xylophone on closing number, “The Dutch Boy”. The sound quality in the Irish Centre is first class, although strange choices seem to have been made over the stage lighting. Daniel Knox plays all his set with the house lights up, which must have been distracting for him as well as affecting the ambiance of the gig. Meanwhile The Handsome Family’s set inexplicitly has the drum kit brightly lit, while Brett is restricted to dim red light all evening. However, this doesn’t take away from what has been a great occasion.

Setlist: So Much Wine; Whitehaven; The Bottomless Hole; My Ghost; Far from Any Roads; The Giant of Illinois; The Loneliness of Magnets; The Sad Milkman; Gold; Owls; My Sister’s Tiny Hands; Frogs; Tiny Tina; Weightless Again; Don’t Be Scared. Encore: When That Helicopter Comes; The Dutch Boy.

One Response to “The Handsome Family + Daniel Knox at The Irish Centre, Leeds, UK – 16th March 2015”

  1. Gig Junkies » Blog Archive » The Handsome Family + Drunken Prayer at The Trades Club, Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, UK – 8th March 2018 Says:

    […] 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 […]

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