Old Town Hall, Gateshead
15th March 2015
A friend whose opinion I respect advised me to arrive early so as to see opening act Daniel Knox and my mate Steve had done some research and was excitedly intrigued as we took our seats.
After 10 minutes of Knox’s sparse singing style, choppy piano playing and deep crusty voice on the first three songs I was looking for an escape route; yet Steve sucked on a thoughtful tooth as he looked on somewhat captivated.
While I struggled to make out the songwriter’s mumbled ‘witty asides’ between songs; I was later aware that they were about gambling, a broken relationship, an imaginary friend and his local shopping mall among other idiosyncratic subjects.
How to describe Daniel Knox to the uninitiated? As Steve and another friend perused the CD’s that they had queued for in the intermission; we decided Knox was a bit like (latter day) Scott Walker fronting Kraftwerk. I must be getting old.
The very first time I saw the Handsome Family play live it was genuinely a spine-tingling experience and the next couple of times were pretty damn fine too; but a couple of years ago they played an afternoon slot at the SummerTyne Festival and looked genuinely uncomfortable in the bright sunlight; rather than the previous compact club settings; hence my reticence at seeing them tonight in the spacious Old Town Hall.
As the house lights dropped Brett Sparks theatrically covered his face as two powerful spotlights trained down onto the stage; making him joke that it was a bit like being in a Prison Yard; and after strapping on his guitar the trio slid seamlessly into a beautiful version of So Much Wine; which received applause normally reserved for the end of a concert.
With a beaming smile Rennie introduced the second song as being a17th Century love story featuring an enchanted well and as I photographed them from in front of the stage the hair on the back of my neck rose during the magnificent Whitehaven.
My initial reservations had all but disappeared as Rennie produced an autoharp before the couple serenaded us with Far From any Road which is the theme tune from the hit TV Series True Detective.
I soon had more than enough photos and I made my way to the back of the hall to the soundtrack of my second favourite HF song – the bonkers, but oddly brilliant Giant of Illinois which had me smiling as I mumbled the chorus.
This, sadly is where the night went downhill for me. At the front of the hall the sound was crystal clear and highlighted the couple’s voices and their instruments; but at the back everything swirled around the rafters before descending on my ears occasionally making the drummer sound as if he’d just met the couple that afternoon. It wasn’t anyone’s fault; this hall can be like that for some people.
That apart the choice of songs from their lengthy career was excellent with The Sad Milkman and a brand new one called Albuquerque about four people getting killed during a botched robbery; when the spoils had been a $100 box of doughnuts; which bodes very, very well for their next album.
While suicide is not your average subject for a song, Weightless Again was the first track I ever heard by this duo and tonight it sounded as lyrically sharp and sweet as the first time I heard it 15 years ago and a song called Don’t Be Scared, which I didn’t recognise; yet still put 3 *** next to it as it closed the concert; but the Handsome Family were called back following a standing ovation from the capacity crowd and regaled us with the sublime Milk and Scissors which sums up the band; their songs are infinitely more literary than literal.