Union Chapel is a cosy venue, perfect on a late winters evening. People are bundled up in warm clothes settling onto padded seat cushions and cradling mugs of tea and cocoa in the soft coloured lighting, candle light and the kaleidoscope of the chapel’s rose window.
The Handsome Family are enjoying a sell-out tour in part thanks to the support of opening act Courtney Marie Andrews. This petite Arizonan introduces herself in a small, breathy voice reminiscent of a young Joni Mitchell or Nanci Griffiths.
Just like Griffiths, when she begins to sing, all of that delicacy is replaced by burning passion and guts. Her craft as a songwriter is well developed and mature for her 26 years. Gone are the jangling pianos and lush string arrangements of her recorded work, replaced by her strumming guitar, which looks over-sized on her unimposing frame, and the melodic hunches of the steel pedal guitar played by her dreadlocked friend Brian.
Expect to hear more from this impressive young talent with her easy going charm and retro sound which evoke memories of warm desert towns, and their generations of simple living folk passing their nights in neon-lit honky tonks.
This is real deal country folk music delivered with such heart that you can’t help but feel moved. Andrews punctuates her numbers with anecdotes from her personal history and from the tour, giving the audience a feeling that they met a real person and shared in a little of her warmth. To introduce a song from new album Honest Life, she tells a story explaining that her birthday fell on a dark day in the US, “My agent gave me the day off, so instead of writing songs, I sat with my jaw on the counter of a bar watching the election and I couldn’t believe the President was Donald – Mr Cheeto. I felt I had to write a song and mourn what felt like the loss for women that day.”
Speaking of the filming for the video for How Quickly Your Heart Mends, she recounted a tale of her days tending bar surrounded by characters such as Post Office Guy, ethereal Mountain Man and Dancing Debbie who make appearances in the promo. The latter agreed to dance in the video for just a shot of tequila (at 8 a.m.) and the chance to “be a star”. The confused video director, used to more cosmopolitan people asking Andrews, “Where did you find these actors?”
Appearing tonight as a four piece band The Handsome Family set themselves out on the small stage. The core of the band are husband and wife team Brett and Rennie Sparks. Their musical style can best be described as Alt Country, their lyrics shot through with motifs of gothic Americana and 1950’s B-Movies.
Their on-stage banter tells of how many of their songs draw on their personal life experiences and their skewed perspectives on life, in part comically cynical and darkly romantic. This is perfectly illustrated by Rennie’s introduction of their opening number Gold , “This is a song about Albuquerque, where we live. It’s warm and sunny but people will shoot you in the face for a box of doughnuts”.
Their set consists of lolloping songs, rich in cinematic imagery and subjects as broad as alcoholism, magnets, state fairs and octopi. The audience embraces their warmth and wit, at times the couple evoke memories of a young John Goodman in Roseanne (Barr) with their dry and gentle mocking of each other and world they live in.
Before performing their ‘Christmas song’ Rennie points out that she was raised by Communist, Atheist Jews who raised her to believe that Jesus and Santa Clause conspired to create World War II. This followed by classic songs which pick apart classic gender roles, echoed by their onstage teasing that implied Rennie was in charge of managing Brett and his mood by answering phone calls, determining the set list and luring him out of his mid-tour gruff funk with the temptation of a delicious sandwich. Whilst he is proud of maintaining his simple, contented existence with nothing more technical in his life than a Casio wristwatch.
What stops The Handsome Family songs from crossing over into trite novelty is a high degree of song craft and musical technicality. Even performing a surreal number about snakes, they showcase their feel for music, Rennie switches from a small body guitar to an auto harp, whilst Brett picks out a blues riff in the bridge, pursing his lips like he’s tasting something tart and delicious. With combined forces of Jason Toth on percussion and Alex on steel peddle and slide their sound is fully formed, beautiful and haunting.
Whether they’re singing about a period in their lives in which they tolerated, “shitty jobs in Chicago”, performing their now famous introduction to the first season of True Detective, or covering a number by Willard Grant Conspiracy in memorial of the late, great Robert Fisher, the quality of the music cannot be underestimated. Catch these American treasures while you can, especially if you like your family affairs a little more Addams than nuclear.
Live Review by Sarah Sievers and Photography by Belle Piec
Handsome Family & Courtney Marie Andrews at Union Chapel, London on 2nd March 2017