Handsome Family at Rhythm Room Last Night

Handsome Family
Rhythm Room
Sunday, January 30th, 2011

"We stopped for coffee, in the redwood forest," Handsome Family guitarist/vocalist Brett Sparks sang, opening Sunday night's cozy show at the Rhythm Room.

The lyrics, written by his wife and Handsome Family bassist/banjo-playing vocalist Rennie, are typical of the duo's gothic Americana; specific to time and place, like short stories or films.

Last night's show was the final one of the Handsome Family's tour, and the couple were showing signs of road weariness. The in-between song banter often veered into bizarre territory, hokey rustic jokes bleeding into kooky character sketches, like some Flannery O'Connor-scripted take on A Prairie Home Companion. 

The humor extended to the songs, too, albeit in twisted, off-kilter ways. The narrator of "The Bottomless Hole," falling endlessly says, "until I hit the bottom, I won't believe it's bottomless," while the praying mantis Lothario sings "your snapping fangs don't scare me" in "Darling, My Darling."

Alternating between a ukulele bass and banjo, Rennie added harmony and charmed the crowd, introducing songs like "The Giant of Illinois," a tale about Robert Wadlow, the real life giant of Illinois, and the blister that killed him. Brett played the straight man to her charming act, and added his deep baritone to the songs.

The couple shared stories of their days in Chicago, before they moved to Albuquerque, contrasting the "dark and expensive" city with their current "sunny and cheap" one. "The Woman Downstairs" documents their Windy City days, painting the picture in dark images, of "eating hard-boiled eggs and feeding beer to the dogs," while the woman downstairs dies at 82 pounds.

It's the kind of song that doesn't know whether to laugh or cry, and the crowd seemed to ponder the question, sitting in silence with each strum and flutter of banjo, and then letting loose with chuckles at Brett and Rennie's Honeymooners routine.

The two shared a story about how "So Much Wine," this bleak Christmas tune, is going to be featured on this week's American Idol, sung by a contestant. They didn't know how it would sound or what Randy Jackson or Steven Tyler would think, but you have to admire the world in which someone is going to sing the line "Listen to me, Butterfly, there's only so much wine you can drink in one life and it will never be enough to save you from the bottom of your glass" to J. Lo.

Guess the best comedies really are the most tragic ones.   

Critics Notebook:

Last Night:
Handsome Family at The Rhythm Room

Personal Bias: The last few shows I've reviewed have been loud, aggressive fare. Handsome Family and openers Where Dead Voices Gather were a beautiful change. It's worth noting that Where Dead Voices Gather's slot on the bill was their debut performance, and if there's any justice in this town, we'll be hearing a lot more their gospel-noir sound. 

The crowd: There were a few young bucks behind the under-21 partition, but mostly it was the kind of guys and gals who still lament the pop moves Wilco pulled on Summerteeth and have wearily accepted that No Depression magazine will exist only on their computers from now on.

Overheard in the Crowd: Brett Sparks, to the under-agers and what appeared to be someone's parent: "I apologize for the cursing."

Random Notebook Dump: "This is the saddest song about milk." -Rennie Sparks

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.