LOS ANGELES -- The country-fried Handsome Family, who
have been opening the Mekons' U.S. tour, must have been on their
headliners' minds as the bandmembers bantered onstage.
"It's good to see a brother and sister act getting ahead in this
business," Mekons singer Sally Timms said.
"And they're married," guitarist/vocalist Jon Langford chimed in.
"Which makes them so authentic," Timms deadpanned back.
The incest implication isn't the only resonance of the raunchy cult
film "Deliverance" in the Handsome Family. You've got your banjo,
your autoharp, your songs that extol trees and nature instead of
drugs and rock 'n' roll.
The Handsome Family showed up at Spaceland on Tuesday with the
obvious intention of confusing the dazed audience that had just as
obviously shown up at the indie rock venue to see the headlining act,
the Mekons. But dazed or confused or whatever, the attention of the
Mekons' fans was riveted on the Handsomes, who, one might note,
had opted for a drum machine over a drummer.
There's only two of those Handsomes, Brett Sparks and Rennie
Sparks. Brett was the guy sitting down with the banjo, singing.
Rennie was the girl standing in a full-length red dress that was
either left over from a swank '70s hibachi party or stolen from a
Renaissance Faire minstrel.
And then there was that
are-they-brother-and-sister-or-husband-and-wife rumor that
seemed to travel through the crowd.
Rennie cradled an autoharp under her chin, almost like a violin. She
and Brett played "My Sister's Tiny Hands," "Weightless Again" and
"The Giant of Illinois" from their third (and most recent) record,
Through the Trees. The mostly male Mekons fans, many of
advancing age, applauded with polite enthusiasm.
But they couldn't quite get a handle on these two.
They had that drum machine, but they were playing country music.
Crazy. And why did that girl keep talking between songs?
"Remember the episode where the Beaver goes into the garage to get
an ax?" Rennie asked. "And he drops it and he chops off one foot ... "
Nervous laughter. "Then Wally comes in ... " Eventually, in her
version of "Leave It To Beaver," the Beav bleeds to death.
Her story was much like her lyrics. The bittersweet country tunes
were tall tales of swans being stoned to death and police stealing
televisions. Yet the vibe was more goofy than gritty.
"They're a band that started doing something ironically, then fell in
love with the thing they started out satirizing," Steve Merrin, a 32-
year-old concert-goer from Los Angeles, hypothesized. "Like the
A short man pressed up against the stage and made a request. "No,"
Rennie said. "I'd rather eat a donut full of broken glass than sing
'Water Into Wine.' " Instead, they launched into the title track off
their second album, "Milk and Scissors." The short man didn't seem to
mind too much.
"I like the bluegrass thing," concert-goer Joseph Lee, 23, of Anaheim,
explained. Lee said that he goes to lots of shows, but added, "To be
honest, I'd rather hear this than a crappy punk band any day."
Which was funny since the headlining band, the Mekons, have
always been so punk that they even pissed off the punks, ever since
their formation in 1977. Now looking more parental than pierced, the
Mekons have segued from punk to country to pop-alternative to
At this show, they played mostly country-ish tunes, but managed to
squeeze in the eternal "(Sometimes I Feel Like) Fletcher Christian"
from 1988's So Good It Hurts.
The Mekons enjoyed themselves immensely. They played for two
hours, chatting so incessantly between songs (while not clamoring for
vodka shots) that at one point vocalist Timms tried to drag the
guitarist away from the mic with her hand clamped over his mouth.
They were clowning like a bunch of rowdy high-school actors after
their last curtain call.
The Handsome Family's Rennie Sparks summed up her feelings about
being part of this stellar show in her special heartfelt, gory and kinda
"I'd just like to thank the wonderful Mekons," she said as she began
to leave the stage. "And to remind them if any of them needs a
kidney, cornea or spinal fluids, I'm your girl. We're incredibly