Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Sparks @ HMV Institute, Tuesday 23rd October 2012

Now celebrating an incredible 41 years together Sparks (essentially brothers Ron and Russell Mael) have been hailed as an influence on everyone from Kurt Cobain to Duran Duran and The Pixies (let’s face it, Soft Cell and Pet Shop Boys based their entire acts on them too). It’s unusual enough for a group to make it to their fifth decade but even rarer still for them to be producing decent work too, witness exhibit A, their rather fine last album 2009’s The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman, which the duo are ambitiously planning to transform into a full length movie and stage show. Makes most other bands seem positively slack in comparison eh? It’s this continuing quest to, as Ron later put it this evening “Keep pushing the envelope” that seems to be behind this latest tour, Two Hands, One Mouth, a stripped back chance to see “Sparks in the nude”. We can thank Russ for that particular mental image.

The show opens with Ron ambling on, settling himself behind the piano to a rapturous reception and then playing an instrumental medley of tracks. Nearly four decades on from that iconic wide eyed Hitler ‘tached image on Top Of The Pops he’s still a striking presence, seemingly belonging to a different time and place to the rest of us. Whilst he remains pretty static for the majority of the show younger bro, Russ, just can’t keep still. In fact you’d be hard pushed to find a lead singer with more energy. Bounding on stage in a pair of three quarter length trousers, striped socks and a tweedy looking jacket he’s prone to skipping around like an irrepressible elf or new born baby lamb. Let us remind ourselves here...this dude’s an OAP.

The set itself was a mix of greatest hits and album cuts spanning most of the band’s career, kicking off with Hospitality On Parade from 1975’s Indiscreet album. Russ’s voice appears to be as strong as ever which is pretty impressive considering the high notes that he constantly has to reach in pretty much every song. I guess he’s not a smoker eh? Fast forwarding to 2008’s Hello Young Lovers for the track Metaphors illustrated just how successfully the Mael’s have managed to retain their creative standards and quality. It’s every bit as strong as the stuff they were producing during their most popular phase in the 70s and, like many of their best known tracks, it’s all about the opposite S-E-X. Yes, girls and sex seem to be a bit of an obsession for the Maels who, according to the interweb, have never married. There is actually something curiously asexual about both of them, not in a creepy, blow up doll kind of way but more in a ‘we’ve got better things to do’ sort of vibe. Messy business, sex.

After an impressive selection of excerpts from their opera The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman (Ron comically donned a black beret for this bit), Russell romped through procrastinator’s anthem Dick Around. It’s actually something of a mini opera itself (who knows, maybe that’s where the Bergman idea came from?), catchy, clever and, hell, it’s got to be said, FUN, all at the same time, which pretty much sums up much of Sparks output over the decades.

Predictably This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us got the biggest cheer of the night, even if it wasn’t the one that most suited the stripped back format the best. Nearly 40 years after Ron came up with that naggingly insistent keyboard motif and Russ warbled operatically over the top it’s still one of the most exciting moments in pop. To have a track that should be showing real signs of middle aged spread but that’s still as fresh and energetic as a horny teen is pretty remarkable. If you looked hard enough you’d have caught a glimpse of a smile from Ron as the crowd applauded wildly at the end, just a glimpse mind you.
As much as I enjoyed the hits it was nice to become reacquainted with some lesser known gems too, especially the next couple of tracks The Rhythm Thief and a remarkably jaunty I’m A Suburban Homeboy replete with Russ acting out little bits of the song (something he charmingly did throughout the set in fact). Capped off with When Do I Get To Sing My Way the main set was over but they soon returned for Number One Song In Heaven and Beat The Clock, two tracks that were pretty sparse in their original forms so closer to tonight’s versions. Listening to these numbers again it’s pretty clear, no Sparks, no Hot Chip et al. It’s a simple as that. When Russ moved behind the keyboard during Beat The Clock it could only mean one thing. Yes. The Ron dance. For a man who barely moves a muscle throughout the set the sight of him dancing away like a flapper on speed is a little like seeing Stephen Hawking break dancing. “Ladies and gentlemen the hardest working man in show business” acknowledged Russ wryly.

Bringing things right up to date, and highlighting the point made earlier about the band still coming up with the goods, the show closed with new single Two Hands, One Mouth. The fact that it’s been written with this tour in mind ensured it suited the simple keyboard and vocal set up perfectly and Russ’ innuendo packed delivery of the words “to satisfy you” were worthy of a Carry On movie. Brilliant.

Singing over, Ron and Russ remained on stage a moment to reveal that they’ve got a bit of a soft spot for Birmingham and Brummies in general. In fact they arguably owe a lot of their success to Erdington’s (a Birmingham suburb) very own Muff Winwood who invited them over to the UK and produced This Town... for them at a time when most of the world was curiously disinterested. Now there’s a little known fact eh? Touchingly Ron (not known for being he chattiest man in the world) finally delivered some heartfelt thanks to us, the audience, for giving them such a great reception. Awwwww bless him. No Ron, the pleasure was all ours. Sparks. The number one band in heaven...or on earth for that matter.  

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