March 2, 2017
Union Chapel, London
“There’s always a vacuum cleaner with a face on it”
The Handsome Family have touring in the UK sussed. Hotel corridors are populated by anthropomorphic Henry hoovers, and a great sandwich can save any bad day. We heard a lot about “the sandwich that saved our marriage.” In fact, we heard a lot about the marriage; Rennie Sparks often translating modern life to her husband and duet partner, Brett. He’s no Luddite, though – he has a Casio wristwatch! Think Ron Swanson and exactly as funny.
The between song banter often touched on the absurdity of modern life, including dead-end jobs in Chicago: multi-talented Rennie’s skill-set was reduced to an ability to alphabetise, while Brett was sent around the tower block to occupy different chairs. It all came to a head when Rennie was asked”who is the tramp that works here?” Turns out that’s why Brett was supposed to wear a name tag.
Now living amongst nature in Albuquerque, animals infest their discourse, lyrics and even Rennie’s original artwork on sale at the merch desk. Not the sanitised world of household pets, though. We’re talking wild, free, unusual – the world’s smallest horse, fire-ants, snakes – and, unusually, revolutionary: “all octopuses in the neighbourhood will rise up!”
This show would have been entertaining enough as a two hour surreal stream of consciousness but there was plenty of music to enjoy, too. Of course, the reception for True Detective’s theme song Far From Any Road was wild, even though Rennie jokingly called it the soundtrack to “the hit HBO show Real Cat Detectives.” They had no problem with playing a Christmas song in February, nor with sharing the darker side of description in So Much Wine: “you fell asleep with blood on your teeth/I got in my car and drove away.”
Back In My Day, Giant of Illinois and countless other songs celebrated the obscure, the overlooked and delicious darkness. Brett’s deep vocals soared up to Union Chapel’s rafters, variously chased down by Rennie’s sweet harmonies and her auto harp, xylophone or ukulele, as well as gentle drums and bluesy pedal steel.
Still, the best was left ’til last, a powerful encore beginning with Your Great Journey movingly dedicated to Robert Fisher of the Willard Grant Conspiracy, and ending with Brett’s spine-tingling solo version of My Ghost.
Just time enough for a parting thought: “I won’t get any cookies or tea unless I stop quoting Nietzsche.” Words to live by!
Visit The Handsome Family’s website for music and tour dates.
“I’m actually a metal band, you can’t even tell because it sounds so nice here”
There will always be some who insist the show starts at 9. Presumably they think their favourite bands went straight from the rehearsal room to the headlining slot. Usually their loss is our gain; fewer people to chatter inanely over the music. Still, every now and again it seems worth trying to convince the uninitiated to see all the artists they’ve paid to see, because something special is about to happen.
With grim inevitability, the naive folks headed off for their rushed dinner or cheap drinks and may never know how much they lost. For Courtney Marie Andrews’ set really was special. Take Not The End, for example. Moving, mature and clearly enunciated, all with a country twang, sensitively accompanied on the pedal steel guitar. The same could be said for Table For One, Honest Life or, in fact, any of the 9 songs; Andrews was consistently excellent.
It wasn’t just the music. It’s easy to be overawed by Union Chapel’s scale and crisp acoustics; even the most seasoned pros have been known to draw into themselves. Of course, Andrews marvelled at the setting: “It’s just been a dream playing these big old fairy majestic places.”
Yet she remained undeniably endearing. She undercut her metal band quip with “full disclosure: that’s a recycled joke!”
That mix of humour and easy charm resurfaced as she described shooting the video for How Quickly Your Heart Mends. She giggled as she recalled the director asking “where did you find these actors,” since ‘Dancing Debbie’ and her co-stars were real-life patrons of Andrews’ local bar. She fondly remembered Debbie exclaiming “I’m going to be famous!” and asking for payment in alcohol at the 8:00am shoot; trading a shot of tequila for a shot of fame.
It’s become de rigueur for American bands to comment on their new president, usually with some creative insult. Andrews had that ready – ‘Mr. Cheeto’ – but she had something more, too; a poetic response to the election result: “I wanted to mourn what felt like the loss for women that day.” She’s not stopping at words, she’s also recorded the protest song I Wish I Would Know How It Would Feel To Be Free for Our First 100 Days, a compilation to raise money for organisations under threat under the new administration.
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