Until their song “Far From Any Road” was featured as the theme for the first season of HBO’s True Detective, the Handsome Family were something of a secret. Dabbling in the realm of what some have called gothic Americana, the husband and wife duo of Brett and Rennie Sparks have always been criminally underrated. After more than two decades they have built a loyal following, which explained the sold out crowd at Portland’s Doug Fir Lounge on Friday, December 1st.
Plenty in the audience were also there to see local act Drunken Prayer, the project of Morgan Geer, who these days can also be found playing with legendary Chicago psych-folk outfit Freakwater. With a drummer and bassist, Geer delivered a powerful set brimming with sharp guitar playing and a voice slightly reminiscent of Randy Newman and Bobby Charles but with its own twangy cadence. Songs like “Brazil”, “Maryjane”, and “Machines” brought together soulful Southern rock with a desert country sound.
Shortly after Drunken Prayer, the Handsome Family took the stage in good spirits, opening with the ominous Western-tinged “My Sister’s Tiny Hands”. “The Loneliness of Magnets” would highlight the duo’s oddly humorous view with its playful take on the world. In between songs, Brett and Rennie Sparks would continue the dark comedy so present in their lyrics by bantering back and forth in their good-natured husband-wife bickering. Of course, the chiding was in good faith and part of the act as they debated life, death and snake people. It’s not surprising that the Sparks call Albuquerque, NM home these days, as much of their music is intensely literate in a style not unlike fellow New Mexico resident Cormac McCarthy, albeit with a humorous spin. Songs like “Gold” and “The Bottomless Hole” encapsulated a mysterious Western universe, brought to life by the haunting baritone of Brett Sparks.
After complaining that he never received a copy of the soundtrack of True Detective, Brett led the band into a version of “Far From Any Road” that was reworked to include a slinky keyboard effect and odd vocal changes. Soon after, the band would go into the creepy, harmonious “Weightless Again”. Throughout the night, Rennie Sparks plucked away at a banjo or acoustic guitar and offered up her own musings to guide the ceremonious tone of the evening. By the end of the set, the Handsome Family had once again succeeded in bringing cheer by highlighting the underbelly of society. Their stage presence and song catalogue puts them in a position to play on the bigger stages they deserve, but on this night to a sold out room of roughly two hundred people, the Handsome Family solidified their special niche in music.