It’s always a joy when the Handsome Family, who once called Chicago their home, return to this city for a concert. “We did live in Chicago back in the 1800s. The place was all gas lamps,” the Handsome Family’s Rennie Sparks remarked Monday night at the Pritzker Pavilion in Millennium. “We like what you’ve done with the place.”
Well, it hasn’t been quite that long since Rennie and her husband/bandmate, Brett Sparks, lived along Milwaukee Avenue, an experience that inspired grimly humorous and evocative songs such as “The Woman Downstairs.” Rennie writes the lyrics, but it’s Brett who sings them, and on Monday night, standing on the stage in that glorious venue, he sang of those old days in Wicker Park in the 1980s and ’90s: “Chicago is where the woman downstairs/Starved herself to death last summer/Her boyfriend Ted ate hot dogs/And wept with the gray rats out on the fire escape…” And oh, that chorus about the wind screaming up Ashland Avenue.
It’s one of the great songs about Chicago — and a fine example of the Handsome Family’s unusual artistry. This alt-country duo often plunges into the darkness with its macabre lyrics, and yet, it delivers them with an almost jaunty spirit and a wicked sense of humor. The Handsome Family’s latest album, Wilderness, is a concept record, with each song telling the story of a different animal. The deluxe edition comes with a beautiful illustrated book of Rennie Sparks stories to go with each song.
For Monday’s concert, the Sparkses were supplemented by a couple of backing musicians, drummer Jason Toth and guitarist David Gutierrez, which fleshed out and stretched out the songs nicely. Along with a few of the new songs, the Handsome Family played old classics, including “The Sad Milkman,” “So Much Wine,” “In the Air,” “My Sister’s Tiny Hands” and “Weightless Again.”
Rennie was as whimsical as ever with her stage banter, telling the people sitting back on the lawn that all of the musicians onstage had donkey hooves for feet. At one point, when Brett thanked the audience for its kindness, Rennie interjected, “They could still turn on us.” “You always say that,” Brett drawled.
As a matter of fact, there was one particularly loud and boisterous audience member whose shouting proved to be a distraction — by the end, he was yelling out non sequitors such as “Cocaine Blues”! — but not enough to detract from a splendid concert.
The opening act Monday was Chicago singer-songwriter Azita, who sounded lovely as she played Millennium Park’s Steinway piano. Her backup musicians gave her songs a more rocking sound than usual, evoking 1970s guitar-and-piano pop. They played a cool cover of Joe Jackson’s “Breaking Us in Two,” but the highlight was hearing Azita play a quiet song with minimal accompaniment, her voice hitting high notes that echoed the jazzy piano chords.