Sparks @ The Ritz, Manchester
Monday 22nd October 2013
As is typical of the Mael brothers, this was no traditional gig; for this current tour Sparks had chosen to revisit material from their entire repertoire and then present it as just a duo, utilising just voice and keyboards, their songs stripped down to their constituent parts â what we were watching was the very essence, the musical substance that has now held the Maelâs together since they first formed back in the late 60âs as Half Nelson.
Their obvious desire to expose themselves to scrutiny was heightened firstly by the lack of support band; as such the near capacity crowd looked expectantly at the stage, a solitary keyboard swathed in a simple colour wash from the stage lighting…Sparks had deliberately created this environment to focus the audience attention on the spectacle of the song rather than the spectacle of the performance; a chance maybe to unravel this most enigmatic of groups – a group who have operated on the margins of mass consciousness for decades bar the occasional foray into the charts, and these moments in the public gaze have merely confused us further…this promised to be a interesting evening.
As a specifically written intro ‘Two Hands, One Mouth’ rose from the speakers, the vocal refrain “Two hands, one mouth / thatâ’s all I need to satisfy you” could be heard – a door opened at the rear of the stage and Ron Mael dressed head to toe in ill-fitting non-descript black nervously stepped forth before shuffling to his keyboard and seating himself, his hair greased back, thick black rimmed spectacles and then that famous stare…as the intro faded Mael who had doctored his branded keyboard to read Ronald as opposed to Roland began a medley of Sparks songs, teasing us with brief snatches – perhaps a hint at the forthcoming set?
From the same door Russell strode confidently to the front of the stage, dressed in a bizarre calf length suit complete with hooped socks, his hair flopping from side to side; he reaches for a microphone as Ron breaks his stare to look down at his keyboard which signifies the opener ‘Metaphore’ – Russell instantly attaining those unforgettable falsetto notes. What follows is a journey through the brothers own personal library including ‘At Home, At Work, At Play’ and ‘Sherlock Holmes’ which sees Russell defy his age as he dances around the stage questioning “Do you want to have fun, Do you want a good time, Do you want me to laugh, Do you want me to cry, Do you want me to dance, Do you want me to sing, Do you want me to joke?”
Sparks understand performance, and despite the stripped stylingâs of the gig they effortlessly create a spectacle, Ron is the polar opposite of Russell – he only looks comfortable secluded behind ‘Ronald’ whilst his brother is happy to be in the limelight, the two of them are so attuned to each other there is no need for song introductions; a simple glance conveys the message as their songs range from musical hall to disco and to electro-pop.
Sparks are the band that have influenced many others throughout their entire career, Sparks have been a constant in my own life, from those long gone Thursday evenings as a nascent pre-teen watching Ron stare from the TV screen as they appeared yet again on Top Of The Pops; the conversations the following day in the playground about ‘that weird man, who stares’ through to new wave when they still managed to shock despite the Pistols et al having apparently laid waste to the rock ‘n’ roll rule book and on into the 90’s, culminating more recently with a ground breaking 21 night run at the Islington Academy, and their new album ‘The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman’
‘My Baby’s Taking Me Home’ and the insane ‘Singing In The Shower’ which on initial record release featured Rita Mitsouko both evoke the sense of the dark macabre, the later being vastly improved by the back to basics approach of these gigs.
Ron rises to his feet and turns away from the audience, when he completes the circle he is wearing a black beret, he re-positions his microphone; Russell pauses to momentarily introduce a selection of tracks from ‘The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman’ before announcing that the work will in the near future go into production as both a film and full stage performance.
‘Dick Around’ and ‘Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth’ demonstrate the astonishing vocal ability and dexterity of Russell, as perhaps a faint glimmer of a smile breaks across Ronâs face; the set closes with ‘Rhythm Thief’ - the brothers step towards the front of the stage, Ron looks pained to be in the glare as applause rains down around him, Russell acknowledges the adulation with a repeated âthank youâ before disappearing to the rear of the stage.
This crowd were never going to be satisfied, and the applause continued until the brothers reappear; the encore revisits their disco period, but this was disco with real dark sexual menace, the electronic beats that subsequently influenced the likes of Martin Rev and Alan Vega and perhaps as if to acknowledge this Ron’s keyboard wizardry set free the opening cinematic bars to ‘The Number On Song In Heaven’ before a cavernous bass pattern powered the song skyward â this was majestic, it might sound trite but I stood rooted to the spot, mesmerised by the beauty and magnitude of the song, my state only broken by ‘Beat The Clock’ during which Russell without missing a note took over keyboard duties mid song â Ron shuffled to the stage front then sat as if on a pier his legs crossed chin resting on his hands; the thoughtful man â after a moment he pulls himself upright, the entire time maintain that stare before suddenly breaking out in a burst of acrobatic and self deprecating âdad dancingâ shattering the illusion of aloofness he has manicured and cementing the intimate bond between Sparks and their audience.
Once more the Mael brothers step forward to receive the applause; Russell presents the microphone to Ron who graciously accepts the audience’s appreciation before saying a few words, expressing both his and his brother’s genuine thanks in a display of humility rarely seen from people who have lived in the public glare for nearly forty years.
As they retreat to the rear of the stage I am left trying to absorb the impact of what I have just witnessed, Sparks have always been an important band, a band with a riot of musical ideas, they have transgressed genres as they have transgressed decades and tonight they demonstrated that they remain as important now as they have ever been.
Gig of the year? Quite possibly…