The Handsome Family have a new album called Unseen, which brought them to Chicago for a concert on Sunday night at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Sadly, I missed that show, but I did see the group’s cool performance of several songs on Tuesday, Sept. 20, in an art gallery. Presented by Aron Packer Projects at the Tom Robinson Gallery, it was part of a one-night-only exhibit of paintings by Rennie Sparks, the Handsome Family’s brilliant lyricist. In addition to Rennie’s richly imaginative paintings of animals, the exhibit included a few items that weren’t for sale: a sample of her collection of dog and cat food cans from around the world, and a display case of cat whiskers she has collected. These oddities were the perfect backdrop for a short sample of Brett and Rennie Sparks’ beautiful and darkly humorous old-fashioned country and folk music. (Terry Gross’ interview of the Handsome Family this week on NPR’s Fresh Air is well worth hearing.)
The Mekons have a new record called Existentialism — a lo-fi live CD of new songs performed into one microphone, with an accompanying book — but the band played just one of those new tunes on Monday, Sept. 19, at the Hideout. Instead of promoting the new material, the band delivered a typically rollicking set filled with most of its most beloved songs. Sally Timms said the Mekons would play fewer “hits” during the following night’s show at the Hideout; Jon Langford jokingly questioned whether that would be possible.
The Handsome Family’s Brett and Rennie Sparks came onstage and sang their song “The Sad Milkman” with the Mekons. And then, finally, as the Mekons came back for a second encore, the band played one song from the new album — it wasn’t printed on the set list — “Simone on the Beach,” which is inspired by the true story of French writer Simone de Beauvoir and her love affair with Chicago author Nelson Algren. It’s also a song that happens to mention the bar where the Mekons were playing on this night: “Did they drink at the Hideout, back in 1947? The house under the highway, in bed with him as container trucks roll by.”
SET LIST: Memphis, Egypt / Beaten and Broken / Tina / Millionaire / Diamonds / Abernant 1984-85 / Heaven and Back / Fantastic Voyage / Fletcher Christian / Orpheus / Now We Have the Bomb / Last Dance / Curse / Hard to Be Human
ENCORE: Thee Olde Trip to Jerusalem / The Sad Milkman / Big Zombie / Shanty / Where Were You
SECOND ENCORE: Simone on the Beach / Ghosts of American Astronauts
As I’ve said before, the Hideout Block Party is one of the Chicago outdoor concert season’s most enjoyable events. For the past few years, it has merged with the Onion/A.V. Club’s festival, and this past weekend’s lineup seemed to reflect the tastes of that publication as much as the usual fare you’d expect from the Hideout.
Friday’s shows were dampened a bit by the rain that fell early in the evening, with some occasional sprinkles throughout the night. Weather delays shortened the sets — I especially wish that the Handsome Family had been given more time, but their gothic alt-country songs were actually a perfect fit with the gloomy weather. Jon Langford presented the first gig ever by yet another Jon Langford band, the cleverly named Bad Luck Jonathan, playing songs that seemed to hark back to early rock ‘n’ roll. Walkmen lead singer Hamilton Leithauser played a solo show — or rather, a show backed by a new band, all of which sounded very much like the Walkmen. And Death Cab for Cutie closed out the night, playing for the last time (ever?) with departing lead guitarist Chris Walla.
The weather was perfect on Saturday for the festival’s second day, which kicked off with a Hideout Block Party tradition: the droning of massed guitars known as the Plastic Crimewave Vision Celestial Guitarkestra, featuring anyone who brought a guitar, all of them joining in the din from the parking lot in front of the stage. Other highlights on Saturday afternoon included the old-timey acoustic blues and gospel music of Valerie June, the electronic pop songs of Sylvan Esso, and the jamming of the Funky Meters (including a bit of Bob Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35”). The appeal of Mac DeMarco escapes me, but his fans seemed to be enjoying his performance. The Dismemberment Plan is another band I don’t really get. But Saturday’s headliner, the War on Drugs, gave a strong performance, filled with electrifying guitar solos by frontman Adam Granduciel. The War on Drugs was a stripped-down trio the first time I saw the band, at Schubas in 2008; last night, Granduciel had five musicians backing him up and fleshing out the sound, but the group is still basically his voice and his guitar.
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.
The Handsome Family just keep on putting out one good record after another (and sometimes they’re great). I’m just getting familiar with the latest CD, Honey Moon, but it’s safe to say that Brett and Rennie Sparks are still going strong. Married 20 years? Congratulations are in order — and given just how demented and dark Rennie’s lyrics have been over the years, it’s interesting to hear them focus a little bit more than usual on happy love songs this time.
They put on an excellent show of new songs mixed with some of my all-time favorites from throughout their career Sunday (April 19) at Schubas. After spending much of their career playing as a duo with a drum machine, the Handsome Family has been touring lately with an actual drummer and a second guitarist, which adds considerable subtleness to the songs. Brett and Rennie haven’t really changed what they do all that much — it’s still gothic alt-country — but over their last few albums, they’ve recorded more songs with the sophisticated air of jazz standards. They played two great examples of that style Sunday night: “After We Shot the Grizzly” and “I Know You Are There.” And it was cool to hear them doing “Giant of Illinois” again after hearing Andrew Bird do his cover version.
And as always, Brett and Rennie engaged in some weird and very funny stage banter. The running theme of the night was Rennie’s experiments in time travel to acquire kittens from the past.
The first act of the night was Barry McCormack, an Irish singer-songwriter who was almost as much of a raconteur as he was a musical act. Some nice songs, with good stories to introduce them. http://www.myspace.com/barrymccormack
The second act, Marissa Nadler, was almost worth the admission herself. I saw her play a couple of years ago on the concrete floor at Ronny’s. Schubas is a way more appropriate venue for this folk singer with a beautiful voice and her ethereal songs. For most of her set, she was joined by the guitarist from the band Tulsa, who added subtle echoes of her own guitar playing that fleshed out the songs. Nadler joked that she also has a band called Death Machine. One audience member remarked that he’d want to hear that. Nadler’s music is fragile, with her voice drenched in reverb. She commanded the audience’s attention as the room fell quiet.