I first heard The Handsome Family on an Uncut alt-country compilation in 1998. The song was ‘Weightless Again’, still arguably their finest, and I was converted. The voice of singer Brett Sparks was instantly commanding, and the lyrics, by partner Rennie Sparks, on the slaughter of native Americans and the desperation to feel ‘weightless again’ through suicide, located the strangeness of Harry Smith in the modern world. The album Through the Pines brought further tales of woe: time in psychiatric institutions, avenging twin sister’s snakebite death by setting woods on fire, police thieving TV from dead neighbours (all featured wonderfully tonight). Through six subsequent albums The Handsome Family have retained a singular voice which, miraculously, hasn’t dulled, and which is both sharpened, and lightened, in a live setting.
But first we had to get through Foy Vance, or rather his humourless fans. For the most part Vance presented an inoffensive set of earnest folk tunes, resembling a young Tom Waits when hammering the keyboard, but with the didactic arrogance of Bono. Vance said he’d heard Melbourne was an ‘earthy town’, so at that we moved to the bar to talk synthetics with a minimum of disruption. We were soon harangued by one fan for ‘ruining the concert. I’m more upset for him, he’s come all this way – see, he’s so upset he’s left the stage!’ That he had. When we apologised, explained why we’d come to the back and that we were not the only talkers, She said ‘I know, and I’m going to speak to them next.’ That she did. We went down to catch the end of Vance’s earthy tantrum, as he and his followers sung a rousing ‘Kum Ba Ya’, lighters in the air.
The Handsome Family by contrast were welcoming and self-deprecating, Rennie dishing out barbed wise-cracks, Brett the cynical straight man. ‘The Bottomless Hole’ was a well-pitched opener: pairing humour with existential dread, it’s representative of their oeuvre. Brett’s voice is operatic in range, Rennie’s pithy harmonies – and matching ukelele bass – a suitably absurd accompaniment, the lyrics finding them stuck between heaven and hell. ‘So Much Wine’, another of their signature songs, was equally strong, an apparently true tale of Christmas misfortune spent in the emergency ward. Tracks came from across their discography and were given faithful but more energised renditions, from the exposed romance of ‘The Sad Milkman’, the ‘discovery’ of their sound with ‘Arlene’, to ‘Owls’ and ‘Frogs’, both strong cuts from new album Wilderness. Not enough (any?) from Twilight however.
Besides the mini-bass Rennie also played a kind of extended banjo, and acted the organised rock against which Brett could both stand (commanding most songs), or meander pleasantly off course (forgetting the lyrics to ‘Frogs’). They were joined by drummer Jason Toth, who dabbled in chimes on a few numbers, but it was Brett’s voice and guitar work which dominated. I’d not been aware of how good his playing was, and here the dire tones of songs would be cast as much by the weighty guitar squalls as his voice. Best were his opportunities for standard bluesy soloing, as in ‘My Sister’s Tiny Hands’, where virtuosity was discarded for more meaningful fractured and spacious stutters, very much like Marc Ribot, more revealing than any learned blues lick.
Brett and Rennie flanked the stage, as far apart as possible, trading lighthearted insults between numbers. While the levity surely makes delivering such bleak subject matter easier, and made for an entertaining concert, it also blunted the overall impact somewhat. At their best, Handsome Family songs have a power comparable to that of Don Delillo or Cormac McCarthy, essential translators of our zeitgeist: capturing the desolation of the strip mall, the horror of bowling, giving credible human – and inhuman – form to the apocalypse. ‘Weightless Again’ was lighter (how could it not be?), but en masse the power was diluted. The end-of-the-world encore of ‘When That Helicopter Comes’ however pushed the scales back, spiky guitar shards sprayed over Brett’s weary sneer. Significantly it was only Rennie who came out at the end to sell merchandise. I like to think Brett couldn’t face it, too emotionally affected by the truth of what he’d just communicated.