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Concert Review by Nick Morgan

by Nick Morgan
The 02 Academy Islington, London
May 26th 2009

It’s a sadly short review for the Handsome family, aka Brett and Rennie Sparks. Not that I blame them. Sure enough, Brett did seem to have over-indulged in the dreadful fizzy lager that masquerades as beer at so many London venues, but as we were assured from the stage, this was only to counteract his medication.

Handsome Family
As he suffers from regular bouts of illness due to bi-polar disorder this could well be heavy- duty stuff. But like I said, it wasn’t the beer that was the problem, nor the Handsome Family, whose set majored on their new album, Honey Moon, a collection of surprisingly gentle love songs to celebrate the Sparks’ twenty years of marriage. However, we did hear some darker material, being their murder ballad-fuelled Gothic take on alt.country, for which they are rightly celebrated. The narrative of the songs was helped along by lyricist Rennie Sparks’ off-the-wall dialogue with the audience (or was it with herself?), and occasionally with her husband, who writes the music. But it was good stuff, with only minor deviations into that dreadful, self-consciously ‘kooky’ territory occupied by many North American performers. And, as anyone who is familiar with his work will know, when Brett Sparks lets go with his hugely powerful, deep and mournful country voice, the effect was electric. And he produced some very nice twangy guitar riffs too. So I can’t fault any of this. Nor can I find anything but good to say for the two intriguing support acts: the spare and haunting Smoke Fairies, who delivered a perfect and very simple mix of English folk music and roots blues guitar and Liz Green. Green’s voice is an unlikely mixture of Lancashire’s Grace Kelly and Tennessee’s Bessie Smith; the effect, combined with lyrics with a very high misery content sung over simple blues/swing style guitar was compelling. As were her woodcut illustrations which accompanied each song.
So what’s the problem? Well, sad to say, it’s the venue: the concrete box that is the 02 Academy Islington. It has to be, at least in my opinion, one of the least music- friendly venues in the city, and as the Photographer will affirm, it certainly doesn’t offer much for the vertically challenged. There are really no decent sight lines, so unless you choose to endure the very front of the crowd there’s almost no hope of seeing a thing. Unless, of course, you can get a spot on the balcony, which for some reason (no doubt not enough profit likely to be generated from the bar) was closed. That leads you to stand towards the back, where a succession of six-foot-three and very wide boys block your vision like the moon occasionally does the sun, and where you endure non-stop chatter and noise from the bars echoing through the place more effectively than the music. Maybe it all seems different from the stage, but believe me, almost every experience I’ve had in this place has been a disaster. To be honest, had the Handsome Family not been on our list for so long, I wouldn’t even have booked tickets. So not for the first time, I’ve vowed never to return, although I have no doubt that we will. But my advice is simple. Do go and see the Handsome Family, and the Smoke Fairies, and Liz Green, but not at a dump like this. - Nick Morgan (photographs by Kate) Handsome Family
Listen: The Handsome Family on MySpace

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