The Handsome Family That Plays Together Rocks Together

Countryish duo opt for a drum machine and make a Mekons-heavy crowd their own.

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

Geraldine Fibbers."

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

country again.

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

wacky way.

"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

indebted."