The Handsome Family || Bullingdon Arms, Oxford || May 25th 2012
You never quite know what you’re going to get at a Handsome Family gig. The venue was an old familiar haunt, quite cataclysmically changed from yesteryear – and not in an altogether good way. (Though thankfully, the Back Room of the Bully now has air con, which on a sweltering Friday evening in May is just what was needed.) It all made me feel quite sad to my gills. Mind you not quite as sad or as sick as a pint of possibly the worst beer I’ve ever tasted, blended with what tasted like Fairy Liquid lemon. Undrinkable. Never mind, on to darker matters, which is of course, why we’re here.
First up was New Zealand duo, Tiny Ruins, who played an impressively short set. Perhaps it wasn’t so short, but by the time I had found out what time their set started, hoisted the men folk from their seats, we saw about two songs and it was all over. Don’t blame me, she muttered to herself. Nevertheless, it was impressive: two gals, hosting one guitar and one double bass betwixt, bewitched the milling crowd with gentle ballads and breathy vocals. Expect to hear more from this pair in the future.
So on with the Rennie and Brett Sparks show, the opening of which stalled slightly due to a technical error (I was slightly anxious for the sound man for a short time) and then, all at once, we entered the twilight zone. Much has been writ of Rennie’s idiosyncratic banter between songs, and yes, her low key, laconic asides make their set all the better and funnier. She was on fine form tonight – carefully scripted ad libs these are not – but a little light in contrast to the dark they are.
We kick off with Weightless Again (think holiday in the red mountains, minus medication, gone wrong) followed by So Much Wine (think too much wine, too often, rather tragically), so that’s two of us happy. Baritone Brett sings effortlessly and deeply to your own heart of darkness (think Andrew Eldritch meets Grizzly Adams) and we get an extensive set spanning the old and the new, yet to be released, material. All the while, Rennie effortlessly strums, sings, chats and reflects on a whim. Set highlights include, The Giant of Illinois, The Bottomless Hole, The Sad Milkman, After We Shot The Grizzly and encore tune, Linger Let Me Linger.
New songs about an octopus and a glow worm suggest new variations on themes of natural phenomena (caves, holes, lightning, swamps) and wildlife (snakes, caterpillars, frogs, spiders, giant birds). They truly are one-off originals with their strange but beautiful strain of gothic folk.
Soon it’s all over to a deservedly warm reception from the intimate crowd, and we all leave smiling – perhaps a little macabre in another setting. But you know, you had to be there.
Download The Handsome Family – The Sad Milkman mp3 (from In The Air)
Download Tiny Ruins – The Death Of A Russian mp3 (from Some Were Meant For Sea)