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Thursday, 25 July 2013 15:55

Concert review: The Handsome Family Band (with Sean Rowe and Danny Barnes) darken Off Broadway, Wednesday, July 24

The Handsome Family Band at Off Broadway The Handsome Family Band at Off Broadway Kate McDaniel
Written by Robin Wheeler

By late July, some of us are weary of summer. Too bright, too hot and too damn cheerful. Good thing the Handsome Family Band, Sean Rowe and Danny Barnes stopped at Off Broadway with some dark songs and gallows humor.

Rowe started the night, performing solo with a deep, rumbling acoustic guitar style that, coupled with his rough baritone, transitioned between songs about his toddler son and the zombie apocalypse. Introspective folk lyrics in one song gave way to howling psych-rock blues, culminating with a fiery cover of Willie Dixon's "Spoonful."

Barnes followed, alternating between traditional bluegrass vocals and banjo, and trippy digital banjo loops and effects, with a significant percentage of songs referencing liquor and whorehouses.

The Handsome Family's spouse team of Rennie and Brett Sparks were accompanied by a never-introduced drummer, jumping straight into the darkness with "The Bottomless Hole." Composed by Brett with lyrics by Rennie, he sang in a deep southwest patois about rigging a clawfoot bathtub to be lowered into the bottomless hole an Ohio man found behind his barn to fall forever. Such is the darkness of the Handsome Family: ballads of despair filled with bright harmonies and dark ironies.

For "So Much Wine," about the worst Christmas ever, Rennie's voice and banjo lilt while Brett's voice and electric guitar swoop low.

Rennie prefaced most of the songs with what inspired her lyrics. She introduced "The Woman Downstairs" by noting, "This is a true story. I wish it wasn't." It's impossibly bleak: a neighbor starves herself until she loses her hair and eventually dies while a suicidal neighbor drinks beer by the case. Rennie paints the Chicago setting gray through the verses, but Brett's loud and hard delivery gives an angry edge, along with guitar that alternates from ripped to chirping, punctuated by high-pitched chimes.

The Handsome Family doesn't just tell the tale; they put you in the room where the woman starved to death with your belly full of beer and dread. It's visceral, and so dark that bits of gallows humor are necessary to break the horror.

On their current release, "Wilderness," all songs bear the name of animals. Rennie marveled at the octopus before the song named for it. "They think with their arms and have three hearts. They deserve a damn song." Brett's composition could pass for a sweet children's song, belying the message that the octopus will hypnotize fish and humans to their death.

When an audience member yelled for "My Sister's Tiny Hands," Brett said, "We'll get to that ... oh, what the hell? Let's do it now." Traditional balladry and Rennie's acoustic strings paired with a basic drum and Brett's rock roots on a story of a brother who spends his life avenging his sister's snake bite death by stabbing snakes with a sharpened spear.

Then the new songs continued, with tales of flies ("I think flies are the most optimistic creatures. They feast, make love and die. We could learn a lot from them. [The song's] also about General George Custer."], romantic frogs who "sit in stagnant water and sing love songs and owls inspired by tacky statues in a Skymall catalog.

On "The Loneliness of Magnets," Brett's voice grew huge -- soaring loud, dipping deep and whispering. The power he exudes with Rennie's delicate words and images emphasized the juxtaposition of their ongoing themes: loneliness and love, hideousness and beauty, life and death. It's a fine balance that could easily become too twee or too bleak. The chemistry and communication onstage acts as a fulcrum, preventing tips too far in either direction.

As the set drew to a close Brett declared, "Here's a day we can all look forward to in America -- the end of the world!" in introducing "When That Helicopter Comes." His understated guitar built to manic shrieks and destructive feedback, blasting brightness before the ultimate darkness, returning to the depths of California's Redwood Forest on "Weightless Again," to drink Slice and gin while reading "Moby Dick" in a motel room, thinking about the atrocities of history that make modern men jump from bridges.

After a dozen songs, the band broke, returning for a brief encore, beginning with "Woodpecker," the story of Mary Sweeney, a Wisconsin woman who suffered a brain injury and spent her life in and out of jail for smashing windows. "She was a woodpecker," they sang, equating her window-smashing with the birds' eternal search through tree trunks.

Buoyant in comparison to the rest of the songs, it left the audience giggling, while set-ender "Don't Be Scared" turned soft and pretty, reassuring in its words. "Wake up, Paul. Don't be scared. Don't believe you're all alone." Reassuring enough to move a few couples to embrace and dance, leaning on one another for balance.

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