Gig review: SPARKS – Union Chapel, London, 2 December 2013

“When the whole world is running headlong towards the precipice, one who walks in the opposite direction is looked on as being crazy.”

T.S. Elliot could have been talking about Sparks. Their restless stop-start career has occasionally brushed the mainstream with elements glam and synth pop, while their penchant for electronics, repeated speech patterns and absurdist light opera has set them off on widely different tangents. It was back in ‘79 with disco king Giorgio Moroder that they first worked as a duo, a format they physically presented on this ‘The Revenge Of Two Hands One Mouth’ tour.

Tonight’s Union Chapel show is played to a seated audience on suitable bare wooden pews. The subdued lighting, dry ice and church pulpit provides an almost sombre background to the duo’s new found minimalism.

The sharp contrast between the rhythmically strong word plays and stark surroundings, helps to reshape their own identify and makes a potent impact.  A well chosen set provides plenty of catchy hooks and sharp dynamics, while the repeated phrases have enough warped humour to generate moments of audience participation, against a musical background that effortlessly veers from light-opera to disco. This is still Sparks, but perhaps not as some might fondly remember them. Without the orchestral arrangements, the disco production, or the band format, their songs and lyrics are offset by their innate sense of rhythm, melody, and Russell’s performance art.

Denuded of a band presence and presented almost as a formal song recital, the focus of the show is both on the lyrics and the relationship between the two performing brothers. The sharp contrast between Russell’s hyper stage presence and Ron’s unwavering rigidity is even more sharply drawn.  Ron’s accompaniment veers from the rudimentary to the dynamic and provides the perfect foil for Russell’s physical take on art song performance.

Russell revels in his sense of the dramatic, as he reaches for the grand gesture by bringing exaggerated  import to the catchy, layered repetition of ‘Your Call’s Very Important to Us, Please Hold’. He launches into the opening song with some repetitive robotic lines of as part of an electronic voice collage. Each addition layer adds more apparent stress to a stripped down piece full of echo reverb, voice loops and a stop-start ‘green green light, red light’ lyrical refrain.

‘How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall?’ answers its own question with the line ‘practice on the Steinway’ and finds Ron’s contenting himself on his ‘Ronald’ keyboard. It makes its impact through repeated phrases, Russ’s cod-operatic vocal and occasional call and response lines.

Both ‘Good Morning’ and ‘Nicotina’ are notable uplifting moments in a formally structured show, full of Russ’s monologues and offset by Ron’s prepared keyboard parts. The latter dons a Bergman style beret for a brief highlight of their opera ‘The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman’ which Russell calls; ‘ escapist art’, which they ultimately hope will become a film.

‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Two Of Us’ is a vocal tour de force for Russell, as he wraps his vocals round Ron’s stuttering keyboard. The rap parody of ‘Suburban Homeboy’ could be Monty Python meets Devo as the crowd sings-along with the humorous line: She yo yo’s me and I yo yo her back’. 

The synth led ‘When Do I Get To Sing My Way’ provides an anthemic resolution of sorts , as it magically transcends its new minimalist arrangement to connect with the crowd,  though curiously, it’s only Ron’s sudden centre stage movement that suggests they’ve actually finished.

Their real dynamic resolution comes with the three song encore of which the disco song ‘No 1 in Heaven’ has the ambivalent line ‘Maybe you’re closer to here than you imagine’. The dancing crowd barely notices because Ron has launched into his own robot dance at the front

The duo finish with the tour’s melodic theme song, introduced by Russ as being written by Ron: ‘The Guinness book of records hardest (working) man in show business’. A deserved standing ovation finds Russell lost in the crowd’s adoration. Hopefully this will be the first of several future Hollywood moments for this enduringly creative duo.

Review by Pete Feenstra

Jason Ritchie writes

Sparks were playing their final night of the their current UK tour billed as Revenge of Two Hands One Voice – the two hands being Ron Mael on keyboards and the voice his brother Russell. The Union Chapel was a perfect setting for their stripped down sound with candles glowing and the lighting projecting an eerie shadow of Ron on the wall of the chapel. The crowd was mainly their fans who’d been following them since the 70’s and 80’s plus a few younger fans.

Russell started the show with ‘Your Call’s Very Important to Us. Please Hold’, one of the few times they used any vocal effects. Then we had ‘How Do I Get to Carnegie Hall?’, a perfect example of how they successfully meld electronic music with a little Broadway flair. Their quirky humour shows through on ‘Suburban Homeboy’, again enlivened by the onstage theatrics of Russell. ‘Academy Award’ provided another chance for further onstage fun from Russell too.

Russell Mael was a bundle of energy throughout the show and he can still hit those notes as could be heard on ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us’, their most recognisable tune. It did sound strange without the distinctive guitar parts, however the song took on a new lease of life and sounded good.

Ron Mael was seated behind his keyboards (which had Ronald on the front of them as opposed to Roland!) with an expressionless face throughout the gig and his rather distinctive playing style. He did take to the microphone for some excerpts from their last album ‘The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman’, which looks set to become a film next year.

For encores we had ‘The Number One Song In Heaven’ and a treat with Ron taking to the stage do a quick dance routine, not something I was expecting! The evening finished with a specially composed song for the tour, ‘Revenge Of Two Hands One Mouth’. They had the audience wanting more and they were on the stage a good few minutes repeatedly saying thank you and saying they were off to work on a new album. My only complaint? They only played for ninety minutes but they did pack in twenty songs and not one duff moment.

A fantastic night of music, made the more interesting as they performed the songs without the full band backing. This was the first time I have seen them live and they didn’t disappoint. A mix of electro pop, Broadway and as my good friend Charlie Farrell said a hint of a Gilbert & Sullivan review.

Review by Jason Ritchie

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