Beginning to worry that I wouldn’t actually get to see Sparks on this tour – venues selling out in minutes, dates clashing with other gigs I’d committed to – it was a huge relief to be able to grab a ticket for their added Wolverhampton date that wasn’t either 50 rows back or upstairs. Even better when the extremely kind people at their media outlet gave the go ahead to photograph the first three songs. Sparks never, ever disappoint so this was a show I was particularly looking forward to.
Tour support – bringing along Mr. B The Gentleman Rhymer was a stroke of genius and a perfect choice as an opening act. Having seen him support Sparks in 2018 on their Hippopotamus tour (Leeds) I knew what to expect. Many didn’t but it wasn’t long before this immaculately dressed, moustachioed gentleman with a banjolele won the crowd over. With a quest to connect hip-hop with good manners and lyrics delivered in perfect King’s English – he calls it ‘chap-hop’ – Mr B is seriously good fun with ‘Hail The Chap’ and ‘Looking Forward To Leaving’ bringing some old school, foot-tapping, dance hall vibes to The Halls. And, whilst he has an impressive back catalogue of his own material the main focus this evening is his medley of Sparks songs that really focus your attention. ‘Amateur Hour’, ‘Get In The Swing Now’, ‘Big Boy’, ‘I Predict’ and more. Like a modern day George Formby playing songs by your favourite band in a way you can’t possibly imagine before actually witnessing it happen. Finishing with ‘Suburban Homeboy’ Mr. B has entertained brilliantly and created a perfect start to the evening.
I said it in 2022 after their Manchester gig and I’ll say it again now. Sparks, probably the most imaginative, inventive, exciting, pop/rock/electronic/dance/orchestral/odd-ball band you’re ever likely to see are still, 50+ years after forming, at the top of their game. Their popularity continues to rise, venues selling out in minutes. And deservedly so. The atmosphere as they walk on stage to huge applause is palpable. They launch into ‘So May We Start’ and from this point on we’re treated to a visual and musical spectacle, a combination once again unlikely to be beaten.
Sparks could easily rest on their laurels and play a greatest hits show. They’ve enough crowd pleasers to keep anyone happy gig after gig but they’ve never done this. 2023 saw them release yet another album full of innovative surprises that once again pushed the boundaries of modern-day song-writing. ‘The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte’ provides six of tonights diverse set-list. The title track sounds even better live than recorded. ‘Nothing Is As Good As They say It Is’ harks back to the sounds of some of their rocky early hits albeit with a completely honest outlook on modern day life. Songs such as ‘Escalator’ show them to be absolute masters of completely off-kilter experimental soundscapes whilst ‘We Go Dancing’ could be straight out of a huge West End show.
Throughout it all the Mael brothers belie their age. Russell, rarely still, leaps and dances around the stage, arms aloft, clapping, gesturing, waving, pointing. He pauses to introduce songs or to stand briefly with a hand on his brother’s shoulder. Ron, master of that deadpan stare and still sporting his trademark pencil moustache, sits behind his keyboard – Ronald taped over Roland – trying his absolute best to maintain ‘the look’ but occasionally slipping into a small mischievous grin.
The brothers, backed by four brilliant musicians, deliver a superb career spanning set that, to their absolute credit, differs every tour. To play just one song from each of their 26 albums would need more than one show so there’s a song from another twelve in addition to their latest. The disco beats of ‘Angst In My Pants’, the experimental rock of ‘Beaver O’Lindy’ – hard to believe it’s 50 years since its release and the polished 80’s sounds of ‘When I’m With You’.
This tour has been in seated venues and, to be honest, we’re not a big fan of them. For a band like Sparks it’s hard, almost impossible, to sit still. Their songs invite you to stand up and dance. Some do, but perhaps feeling a little self-conscious, sit back down fairly quickly. It’s not until ‘Balls’ that a noticeable number stand up with enthusiasm. However, follower ‘The Shopping Mall Of Love’ is not a dance number as Ron leaves his keyboard to deliver his share of the vocals with a perfectly expressionless face and a twinkle in his eye as he delivers the line “She makes me laugh, she makes me laugh”.
‘Bon Voyage’ from 1974’s Propaganda is simply sublime and then, finally, as the unmistakeable intro and irresistible dance grooves of ‘Music You Can Dance To’ fill the hall the whole place is on it’s feet and, from this point on, they don’t sit down. ‘When Do I Get To Sing My Way’ is, in one word, brilliant with practically every person dancing, smiling and singing the words back. It’s a poignant song but an absolute joy to hear. Of course the place erupts for ‘No.1 Song In Heaven’, there’s a sea of phones capturing this perfect slice of electro-pop and of course Ron walks to the stage centre, stands stock still for just a few seconds, and launches into the dance only someone like Ron could do before returning to his seat as if absolutely nothing had happened.
And throughout it all Russell Mael’s voice is as good now as it’s always been. Age tends to impact the ability to hit certain notes but not here. Russell’s voice never cracks, those highs are as high as they’ve always been, even through the driving force and falsetto ending of ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’.
Sparks close the main set with ‘Gee, That was Fun’ ….. “Being with you all this time, gee that was fun”. And it was. Sparks fans dance, they chant Ron’s name, they clap, they laugh, they sing, they smile … they have fun. And you know that the two modest brothers on stage, and their band, have had the best time as well. Their faces say it all, a mixture of appreciation and almost disbelief that, after 50 years, they’re not only still doing this but doing it for audiences getting bigger and bigger and that are not made up only of ageing fans on a nostalgia trip but fans spanning generations who appreciate the musical genius of Sparks.
They return to the stage for an encore of just two songs. ‘My Baby’s taking Me Home’ and the rousing ‘All That’. Once again Sparks deliver a perfect example of what a concert should be. They take an age to leave the stage. Russell walks back and forth shaking the hands of those at the front. There’s a heartfelt speech from Ron about how much they appreciate the fans support, this being the last full-length show on the UK/European tour and how it’s ended on a real high. As Russell shakes more hands Ron quips “He’s more of a people person than I am.” They stand soaking up the atmosphere, waving, saying thank you. It’s almost as if they can’t bring themselves to leave but eventually they do, as do we having just witnessed one of the music industry’s truly iconic bands perform a show no-one will forget in a hurry.
Words and photos: Steve White
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