Rennie Sparks switched from banjo to bass for '24-Hour Store,' which was reminiscent of a Willie Nelson ballad.
"We're celebrating our 22th wedding anniversary," Rennie Sparks said, grinning at her grammar gaffe as she picked up her banjo Saturday night at the High Noon Saloon. "My parents sold me to him when I was 3," she added, nodding toward her husband, Brett, who was swigging one of the many Miller High Lifes lined up by his feet.
This is just the kind of thing that qualifies as a love note for the musical couple known as the Handsome Family. It's dark, twisted, erudite and, above all, hilarious. What's more, it fits neatly into the box of obsessions the pair brings to their live shows. Filled with odd anecdotes about 2 a.m. infomercials, animal mating rituals and historical figures, this treasure chest overflows into their onstage banter, cementing their reputation as the living, breathing version of that television show MTV's Daria loved so much: Sick, Sad World.
In other words, the band's enamored with romanticism -- the 19th-century brand of it, which focuses on terror, awe and the weird, wild aspects of nature. Add some hysterical bickering and you've got a winning 21st-century stage act.
But the Handsome Family isn't just a comedy duo. For a band that used to get beer thrown on them back in 1993, during their early days of performing in Chicago, they've come a long way as musicians. They've graduated from a drum machine to a real live drummer, Rennie's learned how to play the banjo and sing more or less on key, and Brett showcases his incredible vocal range with cool precision.
These updates were especially apparent when they played songs from their newest album, 2009's Honey Moon. "The Loneliness of Magnets" received a mountain-man-meets-opera-singer treatment as Brett whistled through his teeth, soared to a chilling high note, then dived deep into his vocal register, Tom Waits-style, for the lyric "I call you from dark valleys and I hear you echoing."
Older tunes such as "Weightless Again," from their superb 1998 release Through the Trees, also received a new dose of magic from Rennie's banjo. The instrument added an eerie tick-tock sound to the song's themes of love and suicide, making the Grim Reaper seem too close for comfort. She switched to bass on "24-Hour Store," a tune from 2003's Singing Bones, which was reminiscent of a Willie Nelson ballad at times. However, thanks to a wiggly guitar solo by Brett, the song would fit just as easily on a playlist of spaghetti western soundtracks or Guided By Voices classics.
Meanwhile, the crowd's personality really began to show during "So Much Wine," the band's ode to being kind to a drunk or otherwise out-of-control friend. A handful of teens who looked like they might have been headed to a metal show knew every word and gazed at the stage, captivated. A few minutes later, an eager foursome dashed up to the stage and began dancing like no one was watching. Punks swayed with girls in cowboy boots as the final words to "Up Falling Rock Hill" resonated: "Through the dead leaves, I walk marked with blood and wherever I step, the night creatures run." By the time the encore rolled around, couples were slow dancing in the corner, leaving their half-full beer bottles on the stage.