Gig review: SPARKS – Shepherd’s Bush Empire, London, 28 September 2017

SPARKS – Shepherd's Bush Empire, London, 28 September 2017

Sparks breezed into an extra second night at a packed London’s Shepherd’s Bush Empire to deliver a thematically driven show – right down to the band’s sailor tops – to promote the new ‘Hippopotamus’ chart album.

The Mael brothers have spent the years between their original 1974 chart success and now, shaping their own peculiar universe. And tonight they plough their unique furrow with catchy songs, undulating melodies and clever word plays with mantra like repetition, voiced over a succession of bombastic dance beats, countered by occasional moments of lounge style introspection.

Sparks’s longevity is predicted on their unfettered creativity and a willingness to change and innovate, with a cross genre approach that shifts effortlessly from booming, staccato rock to falsetto driven torch songs.

Not since the late Frank Zappa has an integrated set list relied so heavily on the greater whole. The stuttering rhythms and repeated phrases aren’t so much recycled as subliminally revisited, meaning that everything ebbs and flows in a linear vein.

SPARKS – Shepherd's Bush Empire, London, 28 September 2017

They open adventurously with ‘What The Hell Is It This Time’ featuring Russell on some rapid fire rap, before they steady the ship with the early 90′s bounce of ‘When Do I Get To Sing “My Way”‘. It’s a curious song to play with a full rock band line-up, but it sparks (pun intended) the kind of enthusiastic dancing at the front that pushes Russell to greater heights.

It’s the bewilderingly diverse, but related musical styles from art rock and faux opera to disco and cod lounge that gives Sparks their edge.

The spoken word link-piece ‘Probably Nothing’ for example,  provides a context for Russell’s occasional dalliance with pastiche lounge music, the sort that tonight’s support Mr. Goodnite struggles to emulate.

For while the Morrissey influenced Goodnite never comes to grips with either the vocal range or phrasing required to nail the genre – let alone being able to switch off his backing tracks – Russell Mael is an object lesson in professionalism and cool.

Brother Ron’s plaintive opening piano line leads us into the exhilarating ‘Missionary Position’ on which the band rocks out, while ‘Scandinavian Design’ showcases Russell’s perfect diction, voiced over subtle dynamics that let the song breathe.

SPARKS – Shepherd's Bush Empire, London, 28 September 2017

The show flows seamlessly and is powered by an understated drive that initially peaks on the Parisian feel of ‘Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)’.  It brings the band a huge reception which Russell gratefully accepts by standing still and looking up at the gods.

That peak is followed by a gentle decent in the shape of the falsetto driven ‘Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth’, which provides a rare guitar break on a synth drenched evening.

SPARKS – Shepherd's Bush Empire, London, 28 September 2017

Russell moves to the lip of the stage with his radio mic thrust forward, for the opening line of the whimsical ‘I Wish You Were Fun’.  Much  like the set as whole, it gathers real momentum as the crowd joins Russell on his naive ‘la la la’ indulgence, over a subtle changing turquoise to red coloured backdrop.

It’s also another example of how each piece is cleverly juxtaposed to provide flow. The repeated chorus line is taken to extremes on a layered, tension building repetition of ‘My Baby’s Taking Me Home’, complete with a coda that illustrates the Mael brothers craft.

There’s a quick return to the disco vibe with the 38 year old ‘The Number One Song In Heaven’, which features Ron’s shows stopping robot dance in a moment of pure Sparks pantomime.

SPARKS – Shepherd's Bush Empire, London, 28 September 2017

The show’s momentum hits a peak on the staccato powered ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Us’, which together with Russell’s finger-wagging ‘Amateur Hour’ works towards a climatic finish, only for a surprise low key ending.

The band drifts off stage leaving the Mael Brothers to give thanks to their loyal London fans and accept probably the longest ovation ever seen at this old theatre.

Review by Pete Feenstra
Photos by Maiken-Kildegaard

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