The Handsome Family were in a buoyant mood as they played to a rapt audience at Tramshed on Tuesday night. Ably supported by Drunken Prayer, also known as Morgan Greer, they brought their dark Americana to Cardiff’s welcoming fans.
Until recently the band’s haunting jumble of bluegrass, gothic poetry and country gloom had largely been a cult concern. But since T Bone Burnett used ‘Far From Any Road’ for the opening credits of HBO’s True Detective a new generation of music-lovers are discovering the band once dubbed ‘the Beatles of the folk world’.
One of the benefits of this relatively late burst of fame is that the Handsome Family already have a stellar back catalogue to revisit and explore. As they come on stage Rennie Sparks, one half of the husband and wife duo, announces that in celebration of the twentieth anniversary of the release of their album Through the Trees they will be playing the record in its entirety. The album is regarded by many to be their best work. ‘We think it holds up pretty well,’ Rennie says.
Indeed it does. From the moment Rennie’s husband Brett lets his rich baritone glide through the album’s brilliant opener ‘Weightless Again’ the Tramshed audience is held in hushed reverence. From the creepy lullaby of ‘Where The Birch Trees Lean’ to the gorgeous ‘Cathedrals’ each song brings with it a gentle weight. Quiet and otherworldly, the music has only strengthened with time and road-worn experience. That’s what tonight feels like, a shared experience, a portal back to 1998, when the band were recording the album using equipment from their friend, Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy, who sang backing vocals on the original recording.
The band are good company. Rennie offers a fine line in arch wit. ‘This song is chock-full of animals,’ she declares, ‘nothing good happens to any of them.’ Brett, too, is jovial and bantering. He looks, at least to this writer’s eye, not unlike a heavily bearded John Goodman.
‘You should wear an eye patch,’ Rennie says to Brett, ‘actually, maybe you should wear two eye patches.’ Brett, with his back to the audience, then turns around to reveal a scrap of paper covering one eye, which he leaves there during the next song. There are a lot of dry, funny exchanges like this between them, as well as plenty of anecdotes about the difficult recording of the album. ‘Don’t do drugs, kids,’ Rennie says wryly, hinting at hidden debaucheries.
But the music takes centre stage, and there are no missteps tonight. Each song sounds as it does on record, only wiser, weathered by time. There’s a sense of survivorship about the band, they’ve stuck together though ups and downs, and are back playing the songs that first brought them to public attention. By the time we reach the closer, the melancholic ‘My Ghost’, there is no doubt that the show has been a success, and the otherwise sedate crowd cry for an encore, which the band duly deliver, finishing with an emphatic ‘Far From Any Road’. A night well spent.
Words Joshua Rees