Wednesday, 8 January 2014

GIG REVIEW: Sparks - Bristol Academy, 27/11/2013

On a cold November night, the Academy in Bristol plays host to one of the most innovative duos this world has ever seen. Russell and Ron take to the stage in front of an audience that seems to be made up of people in their 50's (who probably know them best for their part in the glam rock period) and younger people around my age, who have probably jumped aboard the Sparks train during their creative rejuvenation of the last decade or so. But this isn't just any old Sparks tour, this is their 'The Revenge Of Two Hands, One Mouth' jaunt around the UK, where the Mael brothers bring their sparkling back catalogue to life all by themselves. No backing band, additional musicians or samples, this is quite simply the essence of Sparks.

A brilliantly odd introduction comes in the form of 'Your Call's Very Important To Us', a classic piece of Mael magic consisting of masterfully constructed repeated phrases taken from an automated phone message. The back-to-basics approach is typified by the stage lighting: a green light flashes twice and a red one flashes once as Russell delivers the "green green light, red light" part. It's the only bit of backing visuals we get tonight: instead Sparks let the music do the talking.

Also from the excellent 'Lil Beethoven' album comes 'How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall' and later, a joyously camp rendition of the gangsta rap pisstake 'Suburban Homeboys', sounding even more jaunty in its stripped down form. Older and latter day Sparks treasures are redressed and given fresh life throughout the night, as the warm, appreciative clapping of the audience acts as their only percussive accompaniment. The stoic demeanour of Ron at his trademark 'Ronald' keyboard contrasts brilliantly with the sprightly movements of Russell taking a brisk walk in a circle around him while delivering the infectious falsetto of 'Good Morning'. Excerpts from their 'The Seduction Of Ingrid Bergman' musical are greeted with enthusiasm, showing that their audience admires their constant embracing of new ideas and interesting concepts.

And of course, many of the older favourites are delivered too: 'Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth', an ecstatic 'BC', and 'Falling In Love With Myself Again' all sounding glorious even with considerably more minimal arrangements, while a truly magnificent 'When Do I Get To Sing My Way' triumphs over the original studio recording. Even without the bombastic thunder of the recorded version, the classic 'This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us' loses none of its rousing power, and confirms that life just isn't ever going to be complete unless you've witnessed first hand the famous fixed stare of Ron during this particular number. An entrancing 'Tryouts For The Human Race' is given enough reimagination to sound almost unrecognisable at first, but doesn't take long to reveal itself, while a climactic 'Number One Song In Heaven' sees the previously static Ron take a calm, orderly walk into the spotlight and suddenly burst into an insane dance, resulting in massive cheers and cries of laughter from the entertained crowd.

Their decision to do an entire tour with every note of every song resting purely on their abilities is one that demonstrates their well-developed skills as performers, while the treatment given to each number highlights their artistic strengths and ongoing ability to carry on progressing. They remain as fun, inventive and engaging as ever, their stage presence is tremendous, and the way the two occupy their surrounding space with sound is an absolute pleasure to experience. While many of the groups of the 70's descended into tired nostalgia-dependent parodies of themselves, Sparks have stood the test of time in massively admirable fashion and continue to innovate. And unlike many acts that have been around as long as them, you always look forward to what Russell and Ron have lined up next.

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