Poor Rennie Sparks. Snowed in the previous day at a carvery somewhere outside Barnsley, only to find that the rearranged gig was in Britain’s coldest venue. She shuffled onstage a good 15 minutes ahead of Brett and the others, to plug in an electric heater and stand folornly defrosting in her emergency purchase Asda coat and fingerless gloves.
Possibly not what the Handsome Family were expecting for an early Spring tour in support of the 20th anniversary reissue of Through the Trees, their third album. But there were a fair number in (none of them taking their coats off either) for a hastily rearranged weeknight. Through The Trees is the album that brought me to the band (courtesy of a friend’s sister) and you can come up with reasons why it’s the one getting the reissue treatment. You can say that it’s the album where they went full in for the country sound and placed themselves in the vanguard of the 90s alt.country boom. You can say it’s the album where Rennie’s short-story style songwriting really started to come into its own. But none of those rationales entirely hold water. Listening to the album played in order though, a proper reason comes to the fore – it’s a collection of really great songs.
For all that their traditional instrumentation made them part of that alt.country moment, and there’s proper country themes of death and misery in the lyrics, the Handsome Family have always been refreshingly unburdened by the most dubious of virtues – authenticity. Musically, they do add few adornments and noises too in presenting the songs 20 years on. Most notably he songs have their own distinctive voice – clever, literary and human, shot through with sharp, modern observations and a real sense of humour and the absurd. It’s also easy to forget 20 years later quite how unusual it was at the time to write pretty openly and unromantically about mental illness – depression and bipolar. Oh and there’s some great tunes too.
For the encore they somehow resist opting for Cold, Cold, Cold or If The World Should End in Ice. Instead we get So Much Wine, “HBO moneymaker” Far From Any Road and something of a wig-out jam on When That Helicopter Comes – if you get the tiniest feeling that Brett would like to do a bit more of that and a bit less of the well-honed crooning, he’s really got no choice – being born with the gift of a golden voice.
By the end of the evening everyone’s warmed through a bit and thinking both that it’s small wonder Through The Trees has been a regular listen for two decades, and that bagging the reissue is bound to be worth it.