Goldfrapp, Sparks, Future Islands
O2 Academy, Glasgow
24 March 2017
BBC Radio 6Music Festival 2017 has arrived in Glasgow and Louder Than War reporter Stephen Watt was at the O2 Academy (Glasgow) to watch Goldfrapp, Sparks and Future Islands on opening night.
It had been slightly longer than ten years since I last saw Sparks or Goldfrapp live so when the opportunity presented itself to attend the Radio 6Music Festival, being hosted in Glasgow between 24 and 26 March this year, and reacquaint myself with both bands sharing the bill, then the opportunity was simply too good to resist. The festival would include names such as the Jesus and Mary Chain, Depeche Mode, Belle & Sebastian, Edwyn Collins and Sleaford Mods to name a few, but proceedings began with US synthpop outfit Future Islands, ironically formed around the same time I last saw tonight’s headliners, at the former cinema building now known as the O2 Academy, in the Laurieston area of the city.
Since frontman Samuel T Herring’s onstage antics during Future Island’s appearances on The Late Show with David Letterman and Later with Jools Holland in 2014, the band’s popularity has swollen over the past couple of years. With new album The Far Field to promote, album opener Aladdin suffered from the Academy’s muddy sound system, distorting William Cashion’s electric bass and the vocal delivery.
With a surprising five albums under their belt, the band had a prodigious back-catalogue to choose from but opted to play solely new music for the first half of their set, echoing the playful synth-sound of The Bravery to a convulsing strobe light. Herring’s acknowledgment of Sparks’ influence on the band manifests in his wonderful performance as the frontman. Movement which insists all eyes are watching him as he swims through a tsunami of soundwaves, thrashing his chest, and adopting a primal, pendulum prowl across the stage, fitting somewhere between Quasimodo and King Kong.
There is even beauty at times as Gerrit Welmers’ soaring keyboard sounds transforms the aberrant figure of Herring into a rhythmic, ballet-dancing figure, stretching in Shakespearean-skull pose, to a higher deity upon the speakers during Singles album favourite Light House, acclaiming that the song was written after something once said to him which saved his life. Fans-favourite Seasons (Waiting On You) was a thrusting, heartfelt highlight before 2014 electropop song Spirit closed a fascinating set. The band’s forthcoming gig at the Barrowlands towards the end of April is already sold out and it is easy to see why their popularity continues in an upward trajectory.
Beloved leaders of the outcasts, brothers Russell and Ron Mael, appeared next on stage, accompanied by members of Mini Mansions, Queens of the Stone Age, Junk and Sparklehorse forming the current Sparks line-up. With all but the original members dressed in matching black and white stripe tops, this could easily have been a FFS gig (Franz Ferdinand and Sparks) with three guitarists and two keyboardists donating to the original Sparks-sound.
Propaganda 1974 hit At Home, At Work, At Play kicked off proceedings, continuing the hyperactive frontman essence as Russell Mael’s high-falsettos and stage-skipping roused the crowd to join in. The swooning synth-sounds during ’90’s track When Do I Get To Sing My Way? worked wonderfully alongside the frontman’s playful lyrics about Sinatra/Vicious, before debuting new album tracks What The Hell Is It This Time? with its catchy mantra chorus and pounding drums and Hippopotamus, the title-track of the band’s new record.
Dick Around clumpy-sounding direction-changes and shopping-list style delivery was a welcome throwback to Hello Young Lovers from a decade ago but also perhaps the catalyst for a few Friday night revellers to bother the other half of the audience whose faces were lost lit by mobile phones. The festival vibe of tonight was arguably the reason for the Glasgow audience inner-inhibitions coming to the fore, splitting their love equally between three firmly established acts – and some even opting to leave after Sparks had closed their set.
The band’s tight delivery included further debuts of glorious story-telling album track Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me), and classic-Sparks sound Missionary Position. There was even time for some sagacious spoken word towards the end of the fantastic My Baby’s Taking Me Home from 2002 album Lil’ Beethoven before the synth-laden popular Number 1 Song In Heaven.
Ron Mael stepped away from his Ronald keyboard (a terrific tongue-in-cheek visual aid) for the only time of the gig, allowing Tyler Parkford to continue playing the keys as Ron loosened his tie, rolled his office-worker sleeves up, and broke from character for a minute to perform a crazed dance at the front of the stage with an equally manic smile. The crowd lapped up this rare-connection before leading into biggest hit This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us, adopting the heavier rock version applied during their collaboration with Faith No More in 1997.
The band book-ended a fantastic set filled with quirky electronica with Amateur Hour, a song from forty-three years ago which demonstrates how remarkable Russell Mael can still deliver a song, before taking a deserved bow to a rapturous audience.
Closing the evening was London electro outfit Goldfrapp, led by impenetrable frontwoman Alison Goldfrapp. The gorgeous Utopia was a mysterious, elevating opener as the five-piece centred keyboards and drums around the leading lady dressed in red latex and cape. This dreamy illusion was dispelled as the seductive strains of new album Silver Eye track Anymore ground through the bones, and turned the crowd into a jelly-legged veer during pulsating monster Train.
The cavernous echo around the O2 Academy sounded as good as it has ever done, and with two hand-held keyboards on either side contributing to the glam-stomp which Goldfrapp are so renowned for, the crowd were firmly under the band’s spell. The ethereal feel which Alison Goldfrapp has delivered since providing her vocals on Tricky’s Maxinquaye record twenty years ago was at its most enchanting during new song Moon In Your Mouth, both brooding and cinematic, and begging the question how anyone on this planet can write something so gorgeous from scratch?
With pink lights sprayed around, electric fans at the front blowing Goldfrapp’s reddened hair, a fogged stage, and echo chambers ricocheting around the room, this set should and could have won the hearts of fans from the previous bands, but the afore-mentioned reluctance to cut loose somewhat grated on the leading lady’s nerves as she begged the audience “I want to see you move a bit more, guys”. It wasn’t until new album track Systemagic three-quarters through the set before the crowd jolted itself awake again with its pulsating drive and breathy vocal preluding hits such as Number One, White Horse, Black Cherry, Ooh La La and Strict Machine.
With Radio 6Music presenters Mark Radcliffe, Marc Riley and the legendary Don Letts introducing each band respectively, few can complain about paying ten pounds per band for 50-minute sets for the live-televised festival. Even a burst tyre on the way home didn’t spoil this reviewer’s enjoyment of a rare evening in the company of so many heralded, talented artists. However, I do feel that I’ve had my full year’s quota of synth-pop!
All words by Stephen Watt. More from Stephen in his author archive on Louder Than War here.