REVIEW: The Handsome Family – Empire Hall, Belfast

DSC_1877a They started with “Bottomless Hole” from their Singing Bones album.

Singing Bones is actually the 6th out of a total of 14 albums that The Handsome Family has produced during their 20 year reign of terror of the alternative country scene.

Brett Sparks’ big booming voice did hold that sort of authority; it did feel subterranean, while Rennie Sparks stood porcelain pale, with her Mona Lisa smile, playing her guitar.

DSC_1894aThey followed this with “So Much Wine.” It’s my favourite. I rushed to get a good view and randomly tripped, head-butting a man. I was embarrassed, and should have moved. But I think I had discovered the sonic sweet spot of the hall, so making eye contact with nobody, I remained where I was. As the song continued I heard Rennie and Brett’s harmonies like oil on water, with Jason Toth’s drum brushes sweeping up any splashes.
Rennie told us that the next song was about the “emotional sadness of all magnets – I think they’re needy”. Brett whistled the intro to ‘The Loneliness of Magnets’ through his teeth and proceeded to croon, then boom, then croon, then shout the song through lines like “Your pull upon my heart could steer ten thousand wings;” while the muggy broken up bass bounced between it all.

DSC_1911aThey treated us to tracks from their upcoming album. “Gold Song” (I think was the title) was inspired by all the people in New Mexico who are going to, or coming out of jail. First lines “I’ve got a tattoo of a snake/and a ski-mask on my face” eloquently introduced us to the world the song was bringing us to. “The Yellow Song,” was about a “very upsetting time we went the fair, and I wanted to see Tina The World’s Smallest Pony.” For this Rennie’s voice was country, and her off-centre harmonies spun well with Brett’s vocals.

Of course they played “Far From Any Road”, the theme to True Detective. This live version showed up the harmonies and the guitar, with Rennie accusing Brett of having blown “all the money on beard extensions”. But there were ongoing classics. There was “My Ghost” played in response to a request during the encore. DSC_1920a“Up Falling Rock Hill” was the “good old fashioned murder ballad” for the evening. “I believe strongly in the properties of murder ballads” said Rennie, as Brett strongly agreed with her about their healing qualities.

I really enjoyed this gig, for various reasons. It suited The Empire Music Hall. The sound was great, it emphasised Brett’s baritone, the string bending, that wonderful bass, Rennie’s beautiful auto harp and Tosh’s percussion. Their on-stage marital spats were top-notch (“Stop looking at me. We’ve been married for 632 years, during which there has been no eye contact.”). That next album sounds like something to look forward to, and I heard songs that I have been known to put on mix-tapes. What’s not to like? Cara Gibney, GiggingNI.com