The club was packed, and the crowd by the bar only shushed when Brett and Rennie, like a young, perverse Johnny and June, took the stage. It was like welcoming a punk rock Mr. Green Jeans. The witching hour had begun, and indeed, it was midnight, when most headlining acts begin at Bottom of the Hill.
Remember those tales about Bloody Mary when you were a kid? Rennie Sparks, the Mrs. of the duo known as The Handsome Family, may have taken them to heart. The evening started off with her announcement that “This first one is about Santa bringing a bottle of wine and a trip to the emergency room.” Then they launched into “So Much Wine”. The audience was appreciative. I saw a couple Stetsons, a few longhairs and, of course, the usual San Francisco hipsters.
Rennie and Brett Sparks have been called the Morticia and Gomez Addams of alt.country. A combination of somber melodies and tales of suicide, murder, madness and wounded animals, what sometimes comes across as stark and minimal on the albums is actually strummy and sickly comedic live. By singing Rennie’s darkly whimsical lyrics in a deadpan style, Brett gives the music an edginess: their murder and suicide ballads are sung straight. If you’re not listening you might miss the one-liners Brett speaks of. But they’re there, and live, the couple’s wicked sense of humor is pronounced and cuts through the existential dread.
Rennie’s role is primarily lyricist for this gothic Americana act. However, she was charming on the instruments she’d brought with her—banjo, bass (a wacky-looking Steinberger that sounded fab), lo-fi Yamaha keyboard, and an autoharp she clung to like a rag doll.
“All I want to do is play the banjo”, said Rennie, after receiving a big round of applause from the audience for her playing on “Dark Eye”. Commenting playfully, her husband, Brett Sparks, raised an eyebrow and said, “Somebody’s been practicing.” Before launching into the song, off their acclaimed fifth album, Twilight (Carrot Top, October 2001), he’d let slip that this was Rennie’s first time playing banjo in public. She’d blushed and protested.
An accomplished and confident musician, Brett stuck to his electrified acoustic guitar, plus harmonica on a couple songs, whistles, and the drum machine (with remote control). “On tour we’re lo-fi, stripped down, by necessity”, Brett explained after the show. “But when we record we’re lush. We’re touring with a drummer in six months—it’s more human than the drum machine”.
Clinging to a ragdoll rather than an autoharp would not have appeared out of place for Rennie, who has a homespun, farm girl look with a residual punk rock edge. Rennie’s ensemble was St. Vincent de Paul chic—a blue jean skirt with a large smiling frog appliqué (reflecting the innocently off-kilter nature themes of many of her songs), a mismatched brown button down man’s shirt, black tights and thick-soled, lace-up sensible shoes. Plus, for glamour’s sake, matte red lipstick—something every post-punk girl needs, even if she has gone alt.country. Rennie’s stringy brown hair, lanky body and four-eyes are all in character—she herself is a doll, mischievous, pretty, sweet—and definitely one twisted sister.
The critics have praised The Handsome Family’s country-folk surrealism, but they’ve overstressed the grim nature of the music. Brett and Rennie emphasize the humor, black as it may be. Says Rennie, “People think we’re trying to form a suicide cult. That would be bad marketing. Didn’t Ozzie Osborn say that about the satanic subliminal messages that parents thought were on his records? I don’t want to kill off my fans. I want them to live long and be happy. I want to make them laugh”.
Brett, with a short beard and wearing a plaid button down with pearl snaps and blue jeans, echoed his wife’s words. “Everybody thinks we’re gloom and doom. They’re like, ‘Don’t invite them over for dinner, a lot of fun they’ll be!’ But we’re really hopeful and comical. There are so many jokes and one-liners in our work. We think we’re pretty funny”!
They are funny. A good part of what makes the show entertaining is their darkly witty banter. That banter had the audience in the palm of their hand, as when Brett exclaimed, “Shit fuck”! and Rennie responded, “Is everything ok”? “Every inch of my body aches”, moaned Brett. Rennie smiled and in a satisfied voice commented, “I feel okay.” Then she threw the audience a knowing grin. They laughed.
There’s nothing like a suicide song sung to a pretty tune, especially in a rich country baritone like Brett’s. A song that had singular meaning for San Franciscans was “Weightless Again”, from 1998’s Through The Trees. It’s the tale of men and women lost in the great outdoors, a warped elucidation of why “people OD on pills and jump from the Golden Gate Bridge”. Rennie played sweetly on a small, ultra lo-fi Yamaha keyboard for this number, and Brett’s excellent guitar playing was strummy and jangly. The song reached in and grabbed the minor chords right out of you.
“I like to sing”. Brett proudly confirmed his baritone and explained that he grew up mostly in New Mexico and Texas, listening to local music. His vocal range is impressive, from opera to country and western, and multi-octave.
He’s also not bad with a guitar—he’s very good, in fact, and imaginative. He may play a song straight through in country and western style, then end it noisy a la Sonic Youth by plucking at seemingly random strings, ending with dissonance. (Indeed, the duo distantly recalls the disbanded cowpunk outfit, the much-loved Killdozer, on the Touch & Go label, because of their humor. Killdozer also had its roots in Chicago and southern Wisconsin.) Live, Brett ends songs unlike any musician I’ve seen. On their eighth song, “All the TVs in Town”, from the new album, Brett pointed at the drum machine and uttered, “Stop, stop, stop”! when it wouldn’t turn off. The audience was in stitches.
He’s an amusing, self-referential performer. He shared with the audience that it was his birthday that night, and on “Grandmother Waits For You,” which sounds like a scary Peter, Paul and Mary song, he’d call out, “chorus”! For the encore, “Furniture”, which he performed hesitantly at an audience member’s request (and had trouble remembering the words), he explained nostalgically that it was the first song he’d taught Rennie. He called out “coda”! and “outro”! Again, the audience was in stitches. Hopefully the Sparks will record a live album.
Rennie often glances over and smiles unconsciously at her husband while he plays. That chemistry is also apparent musically through their vocal harmonies and the accomplished duets of their string playing, as on “Drunk By Noon”, from 1996’s Milk and Scissors.
It’s always a treat to see a great act at Bottom of the Hill, one of only a handful of independently owned clubs left in San Francisco. It’s an important stop for many critically-acclaimed indie bands as they tour, making their way up the Pacific Coast to Portland, Seattle and Vancouver from L.A. It’s a small venue, where the audience gets close up and personal with the performer—you can see the pupils of their eyes, see their fingers pick the strings, the drumstick tap the tom tom, up there in front near the stage. Performers mill around the club after the show, accessible to their fans.
The audience appreciated both opening bands and gave them healthy rounds of applause. The folk-noir group that opened for The Handsomes—The Willard Grant Conspiracy, from Boston—released two well-received albums in 2001.
Up in front, it was mesmerizing to watch their pedal steel guitarist plucking at the strings, and my companion especially appreciated Richard Fisher’s somber vocals and the lyrics of their murder ballads. From Oakland, California, Winfred E. Eye’s roiling folk rock got a couple hot chicks out dancing sexy in the front, trying to make eye contact with that five piece, and the rest of the audience appreciated the tightness of their melodic song structures.
After the show, Rennie looked at my pad and wrinkled her nose. “I saw you scribbling up there”, she said. “You take lots of notes, like me. Some girls, they write three words and they’re done. Not me. I don’t know how those girls do it”. With the librettos in her oeuvre, I somehow felt honored to be in the Rennie school of note-taking.
Brett, who likes playing with his wife because “I don’t have to leave my family at home”, is a nice guy. In fact, the Sparks are folks you’d enjoy sitting around with drinking Old Mill on the porch on a Midwestern summer night watching fireflies twitter, listening to cicadas hum, playing a few hands of poker—and telling ghost stories.
The Handsome Family’s fans are loyal. A tall, fresh faced fellow who looked not-so-long-off-the-farm awkwardly tried to hand Brett a fifty dollar bill. He guffawed, saying, “This is embarrassing, but I downloaded a couple of your CDs off the Internet, and I really want to support you. I feel like a jerk for those downloads”. As he held out the bill, Brett put both hands up in the universal “stop” sign, chuckled good-naturedly, and begged off. “You don’t have to give me your money”, he protested. The fellow persisted. “Hey, if you really want to, okay”, Brett said, “but, I download stuff and I burn people’s CDs all the time, too. No problem, man”! Then he nodded, threw me a wink and said, “Now there’s a story for you”.