Tuesday 3 December 2013

Sparks at Union Chapel - 02 December 2013


It's a near run thing. We squeak into a packed Union Chapel a handy three minutes before Sparks come onstage.

This is the third and final of a trilogy of dates at this venue wherein Ron and Russell Mael take a wander through their vast back catalogue of songs. As when I last saw them, this is a performance that is pared down to bare essentials.

Ron Mael, as imperturbable and inscrutable as ever, sits behind a keyboard as rigid as an automaton. He looks exactly the same as he did when Sparks emerged in the 70's.

Brother Russell is dressed for comfort in a black polo neck, cut off pants and training shoes. His hair is a black mass that sits precariously on his head, looking as though it may gradually slide down the side of his face. He's armed with a microphone. This is all that we need.

Russ starts off with "You Call is Very Important to Us", looping his voice back and forth to create a cacophony of interrupting accents. It's actually the only vocal trickery deployed this evening. All subsequent songs are delivered uniquely via his still-startling falsetto and occasional faux-French accent.

Tonight's show is primarily aimed at the hardcore Sparks fan. I'm familiar with the band's hits and have their last three or four albums too, but even so much of what is played tonight is relatively new to me, comprising in the main album cuts from their early career.

This is both a blessing and a pity. The lyrical inventiveness and humour of early Sparks is extraordinary, but the verses are so intricate that songs require multiple listening to fully unpack and appreciate. Listening to a track like 'Big Boy', ‘Popularity’ or ‘Nicotina’ is akin to the patter of a Gilbert and Sullivan comic operetta; you admire the sheer dexterity and cleverness as much as the music.

The brothers also perform works from their current (ish) venture, 'The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman'. This is a long-gestating film project which they are pleased to announce has now attracted sufficient funding to finally get made.

The highlight -among many- for me tonight is 'No 1 Song in Heaven', a joyous clap-along that seems entirely fitting in this spectacular setting. Russ' voice soars to all corners of the chapel and it is a wonderful and emotional sound.

At the end of the evening Ron and Russell are so overcome that they cannot bring themselves to leave the stage, standing dazed as parts of the audience start to file out. Russell gets Ron to take his picture against the backdrop of a sea of beaming faces in the pews.

It's a lovely, intimate moment for two of the nicest guys in show business.  

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