“Sparks is an American pop and rock duo” (Wiki). No, Sparks are probably the most innovative, inventive, imaginative, exciting rock/pop/electronic/dance/synth/orchestral/classical/punk/eclectic/odd-ball duo/band you’re ever likely to come across and, despite having formed in 1971 and having released 25 albums since, in 2022 are right at the top of their game. So tonight in Manchester was never going to be anything less than superb. By the end of the show even ‘superb’ didn’t seem to do them justice. Yes, two recently released films – The Sparks Brothers (a look at their entire history) and Annette, starring Adam Driver, for which Sparks wrote the soundtrack – have led to an upsurge of interest and brought in new fans both young and old but these alone could never account for the atmosphere in Manchester’s Albert Hall and a reception given to the Mael brothers that, by the looks on their faces, they certainly weren’t expecting.
‘So May We Start’, from Annette, opens the show to a rapturous response from the crowd and from this moment on we’re treated to live show unlikely to be rivalled for a long time to come. With a huge back catalogue it can’t be easy choosing what to play and Sparks have little need to rely on their big ‘hits’. Despite their advancing years the energy emitted from the Mael brothers never diminishes. With the exception of a couple of songs Russell, whose voice is as good now as it was all those years ago, is rarely still, dancing round the stage, arms waving, clapping, pointing, pausing only to introduce the next number or to tell short anecdotes. Ron, nowadays with pencil moustache, sits behind his keyboards and gives us that trademark stare although there’s a mischievous glint in his eyes and the occasional twitch of his mouth into almost a smile.
It’s a set spanning their 50+ years of existence and a crowd that appreciates every moment. ‘Wonder Girl’ – the first song from their first album back in 1971, ‘Get In The Swing’, ‘Under The table With Her’, the glorious ‘Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth’ all highlights from their early years. Irresistible dance grooves throb throughout ‘Music You Can Dance To’ and the huge ‘Number One Song In Heaven’ – cheekily started by Ron for just a few seconds before ‘My Baby’s Taking Me Home’ takes over but then immediately played in it’s synth pop splendour. Of course ‘Number One Song..’ sees Ron leave his keyboards, stand centre stage, dance in a way only Ron can, then return to his seat as though nothing had happened. Russell sings to himself in a mirror for ‘I Married Myself’ and Ron shares the vocals for ‘Shopping Mall Of Love’. The venue erupts into movement throughout the poignant ‘When Do I Get To Sing My Way’ and faces fill with joy as people sing along to ‘Johnny Delusional’ from when Sparks teamed up with Franz Ferdinand to form FFS. This tour was originally planned to coincide with the 2020 release ‘A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip’, an album that hit the UK top 10 and saw Sparks heaped with critical acclaim. Yet tonight sees them play just 3 songs from it with ‘Stravinsky’s Only Hit’ and ‘Lawnmower’ featuring in the main set.
Sparks fans, whether they’ve followed the brothers for 50 years or for just the last 12 months, appreciate what they’re witnessing. They dance, they clap, they chant Ron’s name at every opportunity, their love for this band and the atmosphere they generate draws you in completely and, unlike at most gigs, there’s not a single person trying to hold a conversation with the mate they’re stood next to. All are transfixed by the modest duo on stage playing songs only they know how to produce.
By the time the main set closes with ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us’ the whole place has erupted, arms aloft, swept up and engulfed completely in a concert we’ve waited two years to see.
They return for an encore of just two songs. ‘Suburban Homeboy’ is followed by a rousing ‘All That’, a song written before the shitstorm that was 2020 and beyond but which could have been written bang in the middle of a pandemic that had people wondering where the world was heading – “All the smiles and all the frowns, all the ups and all the downs”.
For whatever reasons – the two year wait, the return for many to live music, the relief that things might just return to some sort of normal – tonight was a masterpiece, a perfect example of what a concert should be and how you should feel when it’s over. And I’m certain both Ron and Russell Mael knew this as well. It takes them an age to leave the stage, standing as they do in almost complete disbelief at the response they’ve received on their return to Manchester. Always full of fresh ideas, always pushing boundaries, always full of wit and charm, the icing on the cake comes when they announce that they’re already working on a new album.
So May We Start
Angst In My Pants
Tips For Teens
Under The Table with Her
Get In The Swing
I Married Myself
Stravinsky’s Only Hit
Shopping Mall Of Love
We Love Each Other So Much
Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)
Music That You Can Dance To
The Rhythm Thief
Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth
When Do I Get To Sing My Way
My Baby’s Taking Me Home
The Number One Song In Heaven
This Town Ain’t Big Enough
Words and Photos by Steve White