Monday 16 June 2008

Sparks @ Shepherds Bush Empire

The venue is packed and expectant. Tonight represents the culmination of a project that is so unlikely, so grandiose, that to my knowledge it has never been attempted before, and it will almost certainly never be repeated.

Over the course of the last month Russell and Ron Mael, better known as Sparks, have been playing all twenty one of their albums, in order, and in their entirety. With a few relevant B sides thrown in for good measure. It is a wonderful act of folly, and yet, it has struck a chord with a surprising number of people. Apart from a few years in the early Seventies and again in the early Eighties, much the Maels work has been under the radar of popular perception. But they have remained in the collective unconscious and since they re-emerged with the first of their concept shows a few years ago, they have been welcomed back like lost relatives not seen since childhood.

Tonight is the live premiere of “Exotic Creatures of the Deep”, an album which sits comfortably alongside their recent work, which retain the witty wordplay of their early hits but which experiment with deceptively simple song structures and repetition.

The stage is dominated by picture frames, one of which doubles as a screen against which the brothers can interact.

From the off it is plain to see that Russ and Ron are enjoying themselves hugely, and if they are tired after their marathon achievement, there is no sign of it. Russell bounds from one side of the stage to the other during opener “Good Morning” and Ron is soon up smiling and dancing during “I Can’t Believe You Fell for All the Crap in This Song”.

Alongside animations of a monkey playing a piano during “Let The Monkey Drive” we also get a troop of dancers during “She Made Me Pregnant”. It’s fantastic entertainment.

As this is an album played in full, there are some songs that are less effective than others – “The Director Never Yelled Cut” seems as though it is not a song that will find its way into their live canon very often. Final song ‘Likeable’ doesn’t really live up to its title either. These are mere niggles though, and songs which on record had not previously stood out for me now make perfect sense. I particularly like “Lighten Up Morrissey” which name checks the man, who by putting Sparks on at his Meltdown festival around five years ago, helped to revive the fortunes of the band.

The second set of the evening comprises fan favourites, obscure material and songs that the brothers like themselves. Not being an über-fan, I am not as familiar with this part of the show, but I am reliably informed that ‘Big Boy’ and ‘Changes’ are things that no one had ever thought would see the light of day. Most pleasing for me is a gargantuan version of “Dick Around” and the encore, which is “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us”, the song that originally propelled them to fame.

The evening and the twenty-one album project comes to an end in triumph and a lengthy ovation. The Maels are visibly moved by their reception.

Sparks are one of the wonders of the modern musical world. We will miss them when they are gone.

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