The Handsome Family

Brett and Rennie Spark arrive in Belfast with the theme tune to HBO's True Detective

'What a lovely tent,' Rennie Sparks of The Handsome Family exclaims, gazing up at the canopy of cloth and lights of the Marquee in Custom House Square reminiscent of a clear night sky full of stars. 'I wonder if the festival will let me use it for a dress?'

Originally booked to play the Black Box at this year’s Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, the gig was quickly moved to the much larger Marquee venue once it became obvious that the bands' fan base has grown massively since their song ‘Far From Any Road’ was used as the theme song to HBO’s latest success True Detective, and introduced the Handsome Family to a whole new audience.

It’s a far cry from their first Belfast appearance 16 years ago in the modest surroundings of Katy Daley’s pub, when less than 30 people turned out to see a band just beginning to receive critical notice in the UK thanks to early championing by Uncut Magazine.

 

The band have been regular visitors to the city ever since, their audience growing with each new album release. Last year’s Wilderness was their 13th, featuring a blend of country and Gothic folk with topics which range from the mysterious mating habits of animals to giants who die from a blister on their toe. Tonight is their biggest gig in the city so far.

In the midst of a European tour, the Handsome Family – husband and wife Brett and Rennie Sparks, plus drummer Jason Toth – arrive in Belfast following an arduous journey from Holland, which included 17 hours on a ferry where the three shared one bed 'taking turns with the pillow', Rennie explains as the band take the stage.

'I don’t know how Jason felt about it, but I was happy. It was very romantic,' she quips before introducing opener ‘The Bottomless Hole', a song about a man who finds a hole in his backyard which he is afraid may have no ending.

The song is typical of the Handsome Family: Brett sings Rennie’s lyrics in a powerful baritone over mid-tempo country tunes, breathing life into the often surreal characters and the circumstances they find themselves in – a mixture of the mundane and the magical.

The set list tonight covers a broad range of the band’s back catalogue. From the heartbreaking ‘So Much Wine’ – a Christmas song dealing with alcoholism, which was covered by Christie Moore a few years back – to ‘My Sister’s Tiny Hands', a macabre song about 'whiskey and death. There’s a snake in it too,' as Rennie helpfully explains.

Each song is prefaced by Rennie’s humorous adlibs. Introducing ‘Somewhere Else To Be’ from 2006’s Last Days of Wonder, she tells us the song is up for an award in the ‘Saddest Songs about Onion Rings’ competition, whereas ‘Arlene', from their debut album Odessa, is about 'a kidnapping in the woods and murder. It’s the first song we ever wrote together.'

Alternating between guitar and ukulele, Rennie holds the show together. When Brett’s guitar solos become increasingly anarchic she scolds him, warning him to knock off the 'jamming and bending strings'. Paying no heed, the taciturn Brett delivers a blisteringly perverse solo on his telecaster at the climax of ‘When The Helicopter Comes', a fitting conclusion to a song about an upcoming apocalypse.

The loudest cheer of the night unsurprisingly comes when Rennie introduces ‘Far From Any Road'. With tongue firmly in cheek she recalls that she had gotten into the habit of stockpiling sleeping pills 'just in case' things didn’t work out with the band, and how it all changed when they received an email from HBO telling them the channel wanted to use the song in a new series.

'I’ve still got the pills, though,' she quips, aware of the shifting vagaries of fame. 'I’m not that stupid.' The song, which comes mid-set, is played and sung with gusto, and it’s clear the band have a renewed fondness for a tune they first recorded more than ten years ago.

After a brace of ‘Weightless Again’ and ‘The Loneliness of Magnets’, which features a whistling solo from Brett, we are treated to Rennie’s sole lead vocal of the evening on ‘Down In the Ground'. Her voice is wonderfully jarring, how one imagines chalk on a blackboard would sound through auto-tune. It’s a perfect instrument for a song about a woman who meets her fate in a basement.

The band complete their set with ‘No-one Fell Asleep Alone', before returning for an encore of ‘The Woman Downstairs’, an audience request. Brett forgets the words of the second verse for a moment and looks to Rennie for help. Rennie gives him a look which implies 'you’re on your own, buster'.

In the silence that follows, the sound of heavy rain can be heard on the roof of the marquee before Brett remembers the words and the song stumbles back to life. 'I love the sound of the rain,' Rennie tells us. 'It never rains in the desert where we live.'

The Handsome Family take their leave after one final number, ‘Don’t Be Scared', a song that seems fitting at the end of an evening featuring tales of murder, obsession and the strangeness inherent in life. As the rain continues to beat on the false canopy of stars above, Brett’s lonesome baritone soothes us with his tale of Paul who, when he 'thinks of rain, swallows fall in a wave and tap on his window with their beaks'.

Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival continues until May 11.

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