Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Sparks at Barbican - 26 October 2012


The stage is bare save for a keyboard to one side. To a wave of applause, a gaunt and stooped Ron Mael trudges on, his head and shoulders bowed.

He proceeds to play a medley of Sparks hits, running them together in such a manner that it is impossible to pick them all out. I do however catch a snatch of ‘Looks, Looks, Looks’, my favourite track from the early era of the band.

From stage right, Russell Mael makes his entrance. He is attired in the tweed jacket, khaki trousers and gaiters of a 1930’s country gentleman. His dark hair is combed into a floppy black forelock. You could almost say that it is Russell and not Ron Mael who most looks like Hitler.

This is Sparks on their ‘Two Hands, One Mouth’ tour and that is exactly what you get. Everything has been pared away to Russell’s remarkable falsetto vocal and Ron’s accompaniment.

They start with ‘Hospitality On Parade’, Russell skipping in circles around the large stage, Ron necessarily as static as ever. This is the pattern for the rest of the show. ‘Metaphor’ and ‘At Home, At Work, At Play’ follow.

This format neatly illustrates the elaborate word play of their early material. There is a flavour of Broadway about the songs and you wonder about the path not followed and what a Sparks musical might have looked like.

The more recent Sparks songs are almost the complete antithesis of this approach. Songs such as ‘Rhythm Thief’ and ‘Dick Around’ rely on repetition to the extent that they could be sung as rounds by primary school kids (ok, maybe not that last one). ‘My Baby’s Taking Me Home’ consists of no more than those five words.

Further to my earlier thoughts about the viability of a Sparks stage show, the brothers perform a small excerpt from their long gestating ‘Seduction of Ingmar Bergman’ project, for which Ron dons a beret. It’s interesting rather than arresting.

And that is the slight niggle with a lot of this show. Aside from being bashed out on a single keyboard, there has been no attempt to alter these songs from their usual full band format. This ‘acoustic’ approach doesn’t really make you see the songs in any kind of new light. There are no hidden interpretations that you were not aware of before.  This means that tracks like ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us’ and ‘Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth’ sound underpowered rather than intimate.

It is only during the encores that the new dynamic seems to bring something fresh to the material. ‘No 1 Son in Heaven’ and ‘Beat the Clock’ sound particularly terrific tonight.

During the latter, the brother’s gradually change places. This allows Ron to perform a stately audience invasion, walking through the aisles to applause and handshakes.

The Maels are genuinely and deeply moved by the reception that they receive tonight. It is in the UK and Europe where they are held in the highest esteem – I suspect that Sparks have always been way too clever-clever to be embraced by the American mainstream.

It’s been a really enjoyable, if rather brief show, from a pair of true originals. If the two of them have had half as much fun as we have, then they are happy men indeed.

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