Handsome gab

Martin Longley climbs to The Institute’s eyrie, for a rare sighting of Albuquerque’s noir country ambassadors.

The Handsome Family/Daniel Knox
The Institute
March 7th

Well, we enjoyed a post-1970s prog-jazz space-rock double bill, so now here’s a pair of acts which can be deemed country-noir, found right at the top of the stairs at The Institute, in the building’s smallest room, The Temple.

Small it may be, but it just about contained a sizable crowd that seemed quite staggering in its numbers, bearing in mind that The Handsome Family drew only a mere smattering at their debut Birmingham gig, close to the turn of the last century. Perhaps the band themselves were surprised. It’s often difficult to gauge the popularity of a cultish combo.

This time, the audience were beaming lurve, hushed and attentive. Which is just as well, as a significant part of the entertainment lay in listening carefully to Rennie and Brett’s bantering tales, interrupting each other like a good married couple, revealing dark domestic secrets of the Sparks household, and allowing no subject any immunity from satire’s bite.

But first came a solo artist whose mood fell perfectly in line with that of his headline act. Daniel Knox was born in Chicago, and it sounded like this was his first visit to England, bewitched by the Birmingham shopping mall experience, making him feel so at home. It was more likely comparable with his childhood incubation in Springfield, Illinois.

He’s already up to his third album, exploring a songwriting loneliness that might spring from his somewhat estranged perspective, judging by some of the rhymes. Knox harbours a perverse misanthropy that is simultaneously insulting and amusing. He plays a keyboard that mostly emulates an empty-hotel sound, straight from The Shining, but also trimmed with pump organ wheezes, slow-ground swirls, and tones that bear the qualities of tape erosion as a pitch-shifting device.

His vocal style is stentorian-sweet, enunciated in a formal 1920s mode, with sustained baritone drama and odd placements of phrase-emphasis. It’s a darkly theatrical delivery of words that can be grandly conceptual, or perhaps starkly trivial. He should be applauded for his unrestrained individuality, and Knox certainly set the tone for the Handsomes, who are no strangers to gothic song.

Joined by their minimalist drummer, the Sparks twosome both sing, though Brett is the dominant vocaliser, with his rich evocation of the Johnny Cash resonance, underlined by his deeply twanging guitar parts. Rennie mostly plays a small acoustic bass guitar with a full sound, sometimes switching to eerie autoharp, which is akin to a zither with chord-buttons.

The Sparks are lately dwelling in Albuquerque, New Mexico, home of Breaking Bad, but began their operation up in Chicago, back in 1993. This might be where Knox learnt his mixture of menacing and mirthful. It’s not clear how much of the Family dialogue is repeated from an ongoing repertoire of anecdotes, but it certainly sounded spontaneous on the stage.

Their songbook creates a very specific and special mood, musically traversing a homogeneous pathway, but lyrically transporting freely, alighting on a great variety of subjects, always spun out with a grim half-smile. This was the sort of show that would have been more suited to a seated bar or small theatre, but because the family find themselves trailing the rock circuit, we all had to stand stock-still for around 90 minutes. It’s testament to their constantly magnetising qualities that this didn’t seem like much of a trial.