The Handsome Family and Marissa Nadler

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.

Photos of the Handsome Family.

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.

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.

Photos of Marissa Nadler and Barry McCormack.

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