SPARKS London, Shepherds Bush Empire 13 June 2008
What can you say about a band that has just produced three of their best
albums some 37 years into their career and then embarked on the massive
goal of playing their entire 20 album back catalogue leading into the
premiere of their new album, in little under a month?
The answer I suppose lies in the fact that the Mael brothers
Ron (he of the moustache) and singer Russell remain a creative source for whom
music is but one aspect of their conceptual art which also draws on mime, video,
mock choreography, narration and audience participation as a means to a
So it was that the brothers, band plus mime troupe and later a
brass section gathered to present Spark’s latest opus, ‘Exotic Creatures of the
Deep’. And what a show it was. Split into the full presentation of the new album
and an al fresco second set that comprised songs voted for by the fans, Sparks
successfully teased out the very best aspects of high art rock.
Opening with the album’s Beatles styl e intro, harmonised by
six white clad nymphs pushing mic’d up shopping trolleys, the lights came up to
reveal brother Ron lying on a divan who startlingly jumped up to take his place
behind his keyboards. This was surprising because you might have imagined it to
have been Russell the vocalist who brings the Ron penned characters to life.
The duo unveiled the new album by segueing into the very catchy
single ‘Good Morning’ and built the show around their own sharply contrasting
characters. Thus the static keyboard player and occasional narrator Ron -
complete in Nehru suit - remained in stark contrast to the blue suited
effervescent vocalist Russell, who made the most of the limited space the band
and the elaborate set allowed him.
The hard working band who added pristine bv’s and harmonies
throughout were cutely positioned the other side of some giant size portrait
frames. And over the course of the next two and a half hours several other
similar dualities were played out fr om the soft/bombastic musical dichotomy of
‘Strange Animal’ to the clever imaginative word play of ‘This Is The
Renaissance’ set against the statuesque presence of 6 women who posed as if as
the subject of a painting from that era.
In fact nearly every facet of the duo’s conceptual art found
its expression in a variety of ways, most notably through the monkey playing
pianist on ‘Let the Monkey Drive’ and Ron’s interactive mime with a constantly
changing on screen piano on the metaphorical ‘Photoshop’.
Ron added a little physical mimed cameo when guffawing with
disbelief at the self explanatory ‘I Can’t Believe That You Would Fall For All
The Crap in This Song’, while on ‘(She Got Me) Pregnant’, Russell’ stellar
vocals were backed by 6 pregnant pin-striped, goose stepping figures with
The band duly provided the song’s sense of urgency with some
feverish call and response lines. Interestingly some of the songs that worked
best on the album such as ‘Renaissance’ didn’t work as well live, with the
clever lyrics being swallowed by the big hall.
On the other hand, the more bombastic ‘Strange Animal’ and the
booming repeated chorus of ‘I’ve Never Been High’ were far powerful live than on
record. Indeed the wonderfully mirthful ‘Lighten Up, Morrissey’ gave the band a
chance to stretch out and actually rock the place, a rare rock moment on a night
containing everything from mock operetta and repeated choruses, to hook laden
synth lines, and pounding percussion.
Perhaps the closing ‘Likeable’ best exemplified a wonderful
evening as Russell looked up to the gods extended his arms and led a superb
voice collage through several tempo changes and some clever piano lines into a
The final extended coda of ‘Like Me’ was repeated continuously
while Ron feigned setting fire to band’s previous 20 album covers on the backing
screen. He tossed away the lighter and left ‘Exotic Creatures ‘in tact, as if to
signify the reason for us all being here tonight.
And significantly perhaps, while each album was rapturously
received the last three received the greatest applause, something that surely
will have pleased the band. The contrast between the conceptual art of
‘Creatures’ and the second set of fans requests couldn’t have been more stark as
the stripped down band sans props dipped in and out of Sparks back catalogue.
Sparks’ widely differing styles were evidenced in Ron’s clever
narration of 1986’s ‘Shopping Mall of Love’ which contrasted strongly with the
layered choruses and judicious sound samples of the more recent ‘Dick Around’.
They also threw in a couple nods to the 1975 Tony Viconti era,
including ‘Get In The Swing’ and ‘Looks Looks Looks’ on which the horn section
reading of Viconti’s arrangement actually brought a smile to Ron’s lips. The
incredible reception was fully deserved, and if Russell accepted the plaudits as
if in Hollywood, who could begrudge either of the brothers or band for enjoying
their moment after 4 months rehearsals to pull off the implausible task of
playing 21 albums on the bounce!
A belated second encore of ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both
of Us’ brought the house down as Russell dragged one last ounce of energy to
lead the pogoing in front ranks.
And as Russell had already twice observed earlier in the
evening, ‘this has far exceeded our wildest expectation’. The ten minute
standing ovation might have been the stuff of a night at the opera, but grasping
the moment he finished with a final humorous exhortation of ‘We must do this
again sometime’, which drew as many gasps from the band as it did from the
Review by Pete Feenstra
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