The Handsome Family live in Portland Oregon

The Handsome Family rocks. They do now, anyway.

I’ve been a fan of The Handsome Family since the late 1990s and have seen them live several times since 2004. I’ve always enjoyed their performances, but none as much as this one in support of their 2016 release Unseen.

Like a lot of independent acts in what’s loosely defined as Americana, the Handsomes – Brett and Rennie Sparks, late of Chicago, now of Albuquerque – have long had to tour and record on a budget. Their records have been made in their home studio, and most of their tours featured them as a duo, sometimes with percussion from a Macbook.

Their audience increased exponentially after one of their songs, “Far From Any Road,” was featured in the opening credits of the hit HBO series True Detective and became a runaway international hit in 2014. One of the repercussions is that they can now tour as a full band.

The other is that they’re now playing to sold-out houses, as this one was at the popular Doug Fir. That was a first in my experience. They took the stage as a four-piece, with drummer Jason Toth, who has been with them since about 2009, and multi-instrumentalist Alex McMahon, launching not into a song from Unseen but “My Sister’s Tiny Hands” from their 1998 breakthrough Through the Trees. They followed that with another oldie, “So Much Wine” from 2000’s In the Air. Whether it was intended as such, I take that as a nod to the long-time fans.

The rest of the night ranged over the whole catalog, leaning more heavily on recent releases, including most of Unseen, plus by request the absolutely chilling death ballad “Arlene” from their first record Odessa. Including, of course, “Far From Any Road.”

The Handsome Family’s records have always had fully fleshed-out arrangements, often featuring guest musicians that included the likes of Jeff Tweedy. But the presence of a full band on stage allowed them to sound more like the rock band they’ve often been on record. Toth is a sensitive drummer, matching his play to the songs’ needs, and McMahon … well, he’s a wizard, at times playing lead electric guitar, pedal steel, keyboards (including a great Fender Rhodes-like sound on one song), and a small red synth that Brett insisted was demon-possessed. Some of the arrangements approached art-rock noise, particularly a Meat Puppets-cum-Morton Subotnick “King of Dust.”

The Sparks’s stage patter was as funny as ever (Rennie tossing off “That’s a true story” after “My Sister’s Tiny Hands,” and the two carrying on a running joke about snakes in one of the Circles of Hell in Dante’s Inferno), and the rock-band setting seemed to animate them – Brett in particular. And for the most part, this wasn’t a case of everybody being there for that one song, then either leaving or chattering through the rest of the set. People around me were singing along as well as applauding at the first few chords of some obscure older tunes. So, as much as my nose was out of joint at having to share “my band” with a roomful of Johnny-come-latelies, The Handsome Family’s increased popularity is a net positive in my book. If you saw them when it was Brett on acoustic guitar and Rennie on autoharp, with nothing else but a stuffed deer on stage with them, go see The Handsome Family now. Tour details on their website.

(The Doug Fir Lounge, December 2, 2016)

I regret I didn’t take any photos. Here’s a recent live video for a taste of The Handsome Family as a full band experience.

Gary Whitehouse

A fifth-generation Oregonian, Gary is a retired journalist and government communicator. Since the 1990s he has been covering music, books, food & drink and occasionally films, blogs and podcasts for Green Man Review. His main literary interests for GMR are science fiction, music lore, and food & cooking. A lifelong lover of music, his interests are wide ranging and include folk, folk rock, jazz, Americana, classic country, and roots based music from all over the world. He also enjoys dogs, birding, cooking, craft beer, and coffee.

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