The Handsome Family, Daniel Knox at Norwich Arts Centre, 23 March 2015
I was filled with an almost childlike excitement and anticipation for this gig, each day looking forward more and more to hearing The Handsome Family live for the first time, and for the three days beforehand all I listened to was their music. Such anticipation can sometimes lead to a feeling of slight disappointment or anti-climax which come with such unrealistic expectations. Not a bit of it with this one, this was definitely my favourite gig of the year and I reckon it will go down as one of the most memorable I have seen.
Deservedly a sell out there was no shortage of people hopeful of some ticket returns and the ones lucky enough to get them felt blessed.
Opening for The Handsome Family for the last time before they headed to Ireland was Daniel Knox. A new name on me, although I saw his albums on the merch stall this giant of a man with big beard did not sound at all as I might have expected from his appearance. Whilst his musical style was not entirely my sort of thing I did love the lyrics and his storytelling which was at times really funny. His words and their delivery really drew me into the songs and his world. I also liked his crumpled pile of song lyrics, John Cooper Clarke-esque pieces of unbound paper. Most of the set was at his keyboard but there were also appearances from a melodica. I caught four or five songs and the auditorium was pretty full throughout and most appreciative, with a very warm round of applause at the end of his interesting set.
After a short break it was time for Brett and Rennie of The Handsome Family, along with their excellent drummer. From my vantage point quite close to the front I could see Brett setting up his supply of Red Stripe and then they came on to great cheering. To my surprise they launched straight in with what I consider one of the big guns in their catalogue and a huge favourite of mine. The dark and foreboding Bottomless Hole, such a strong way to start and it sounded big and magnificent.
Between songs Rennie and Brett, who have apparently been married for 25 years, are as funny as the songs are dark, sinister or melancholic. They don’t leave their married persona behind, they bring it all onstage with them, gentle bickering, digs and jokes. None of it forced, scripted or embarrassing, it’s actually quite delightful and the perfect foil for the mood of the songs, which are Lynchian in their sparseness and a lot of which I would place slap bang inbetween Nick Cave and Johnny Cash.
At one point Brett made a reference to Southern Gothic, and in his big Texan voice questioned why there was no Western Gothic and then wondered where he was tonight, which cued more ribbing from Rennie. Their humour is a big part of the show, self deprecating and entirely natural. They said the Navajo Indians in their home of New Mexico believed a painting or photograph should never be too perfect or else the eyes could become trapped in the image. The couple took this philosophy into their music saying they preferred “flaws to polish” and joked they were destined to be an unseen band buried in an unmarked grave until fate intervened and they had a song featured in the series True Detective, and applauded us for finding them. For me personally, I have to thank Steve Arlene for that, whom I heard play their own song Arlene on his splendid Americana local radio show. It was one of those moments where after the song finished I wrote down the details of the song and band and dug out as much as I could by them, and I never tire of listening to them.
One of my most enjoyable and cherished gigs … they apparently played the Spiegeltent in Norwich in 2012, and I inexplicably missed this but I feel I have made up for that with this truly special night in the lovely Norwich Arts Centre. One thing I wanted very much to hear live was Weightless Again, and tonight that happened … gloriously, Rennie playing a small acoustic bass which sounded huge, Brett’s Telecaster guitar was just how I imaged it would be whilst there was some lovely glockenspiel from the drummer. As well as playing Bottomless Hole there was plenty of other favourites, including Owls. If they had also played Arlene it would have been absolute perfection but remember what the Navajo say about this ….
Many thanks to The Handsome Family and all the brilliant staff at Norwich Arts Centre.
words and photos, richard shashamane 2015