The Union To Host Handsome Family, Danny Barnes This Weekend

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This Saturday, The Union Bar & Grill will host modern-day Americana legends The Handsome Family with special guest Danny Barnes.

While both acts have performed in Athens on separate occasions, this pairing promises to be one of the best local shows of the summer.

The Handsome Family is a husband-and-wife songwriting team that has been collaborating and performing for over two decades.

Brett Sparks is responsible for supplying the music while Rennie Sparks pens the often dark and haunting lyrics. One NPR review stated "The Handsome Family's greatest gift of all is its tremendous talent for painting vivid, sometimes ferrying pictures with every word."

The band released its 10th album, Wilderness, this past May, a recording of animal-inspired songs and true and often strange narratives, such as the tale of Stephen Foster's death in a flophouse in 1864.

The Handsome family's songs are intense pieces with serious dollops of inspiration from Appalachian murder ballads. A review in the Chicago Reader stated, "As songwriters, it's the eerie, ancestral voice of 'Anonymous' they ultimately resemble the most."

Their songs have been covered by the likes of Jeff Tweedy from Wilco, Andrew Bird, and Kelly Hogan. Mojo magazine called The Handsome Family's 1998 release Through the Trees "one of the 10 essential American records of all time" and put Last Days of Wonder on its Top 10 Americana Albums of 2006.

The band often performs as a duo, with Rennie playing the banjo, Brett on guitar and both sharing the vocal chores. The Handsome Family has included as many as six musicians on stage, but more often they expand their sound by adding a drum machine or the living and breathing percussionist, Jason Toth.

Mike Ritchie of The Scotsman, in a review of a live performance noted, "There's a lot of smiling at this gig, on and off stage. That might surprise many people who have read about the duo's penchant for songs riddles with darkness, death and the macabre. But Rennie Sparks and her husband, Brett are funny live…through their chit-chat, the song introductions and the banter with the audience…this sellout show was a knockout celebration of the deadpan, a real joy."

Banjo player, singer and songwriter Danny Barnes is the scheduled opener for a handful of The Handsome Family's midwestern U.S. shows this summer. Barnes gained recognition in the 1990s with his Austin-based band, Bad Livers.

After that band's breakup, Barnes went on to record an album with his new band, Danny Barnes and the Old Codgers. Over the last decade, he has released 10 albums under his own name and has played with various and diverse musicians, from jazz artists Wayne Horvitz and Bill Frisell to more mainstream acts like Robert Earl Keen and Dave Matthews.

In Barnes' bio sheet he writes, "I've been at this a pretty long time. The main thing I use to get my ideas across has been the banjo. It has an unusual sound and is capable if a wide range of expression, however it isn't very developed yet in terms of what is being done with it in a current macro sense. It's untapped." 

Country, dld-time and bluegrass interests are obvious in Barnes' style but he also attributes blues, jazz-noise, rock, dub and electronic music as influences.

Danny Barnes opens for The Handsome Family at The Union Bar & Grill on 18 W. Union Street in Athens this Saturday, July 27 at 10 p.m. Tickets will available at the door and at Haffa's Records.

Three songs from the The Handsome Family's most recent release, Wilderness, can be heard on the July 23 broadcast of NPR's World Cafe.