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LIVE REPORT: Sparks
Emily Bick , June 17th, 2012 13:36

Emily Bick catches a rare duo outing at Bush Hall, London

Sparks' 'Two Hands One Mouth' tour is the Mael brothers stripped down to voice and keyboards and nothing else, the first time they've ever toured without some kind of a band. I'd be disappointed if Sparks played it straight, but that's unlikely even if they were forced into some po-faced 90s MTV Unplugged pine-floor-and-stools studio set at gunpoint by a marauding time traveller. Thankfully, Bush Hall is a crumbling white plaster paradise, festooned with rococo vomit and featuring a balcony the Muppets would have been proud of. It has a giant disco ball winking from the ceiling like the gun glimpsed in the first act of a play so you know it's going off in the third. One of the best things about Sparks' performances has always been the interplay between the brothers: Russell Mael's excitable, bouncy singing style against Ron's stoic, deadpan silent-film-star arched eyebrows and death stares. Even at their most minimal, the Maels know how to put on a show. Also: this is solid songwriting. It can survive anything.

Ron Mael comes on stage first, sits at his keyboard with the letters on the front changed to read 'Ronald' instead of 'Roland' and twinkles away at a medley of favourites, changing from one song to another. Each time, cheers of recognition ripple through the audience. "These are the songs they're not going to play, then," says my Eeyorish companion, who is subsequently happy to be proven wrong.

Song choices are taken fairly evenly across their back catalogue, which is huge - 22 albums and counting - with enough perfectly strange songs to pack a week's worth of shows that would all feel like greatest hits packages. With one or two exceptions (and even the not-so-great albums have their moments), Sparks have been one of the few bands to shift their sound every few albums, dipping into genres from classical pastiche and Moroder electroglide to sleazy, mellow Zappaesque californication, big band swing, or heavy freakouts.

WIthout any extra production or orchestration, tonight a lot of these songs end up sounding like the best possible showtunes - not all Glee-spangled and post-ironic and whatever, but exciting and contagious, like Rocky Horror feels to people young enough to watch it for the first time at a midnight screening, or geeky kids singing snatches of Monty Python songs down the corridors between lessons. Sparks' fans are the most devoted I've seen - probably about 65% of the audience have shown up in old tour shirts and sing along throughout.

Some songs don't have to change too much: 'Something For the Girl With Everything', began its life as an arch Cole Porter champagne bubble jaunt, but here, with its brass section and drums gone, the crowd clap along so fiercely you expected cancan girls to start kicking along, conjured up from the ether. 'Propaganda' sound like straight up Gilbert and Sullivan, minus the racism and xenophobia. And why not - if you've got the diction, lung capacity and discipline to falsetto machine-gun complex syllables that Russell Mael has honed over five decades, have fun.

If all these comparisons to show tunes are putting you off, fear not. Sparks always manage to avoid tipping into whimsy, or tweeness, or the self-satisfied infantilism that can be found in many, many other bands who curl up into self-stroking genrefuck and wordplay (They Might Be Giants, this means you.) Sparks are playful, but always adult, and the bare presentation highlighted this: 'Metaphor', with its exhortation to "use them wisely, use them well / and you'll never know the hell / of loneliness" and later call and response section "Who's up for a metaphor? / We're up for a metaphor!" sound full of regret, even with a full house shouting it back. The harsh original of rejection anthem 'Dick Around' makes Faith No More's 'Midlife Crisis' sound like a toddler's tantrum, but here, without the power guitars, it is elegant and resigned, angry, but more vulnerable.

The show hit its best moments halfway through, with 'My Baby's Taking Me Home' and 'Good Morning', two songs from the last decade that would have been epic hits in a more just universe. 'My Baby's Taking Me Home' is four minutes of that phrase on repeat, punctuated with a short monologue about walking around with said baby in a bubble of shared understanding, and the repetition suggests endless hope and rejection. It's like a romantic Waiting for Godot that's never resolved, but the monotone pulse of those words - especially performed like this - attacks, and sticks.

'Good Morning' is a glam-meets-Abba (it sounds a bit like 'SOS') stomp of a tale of waking up next to an inexplicably perfect specimen after a one night stand. The expected loss to come is tempered by the sweetest chorus, a prayer of thanks: "Gratitude / For having thought of me / I know your time is tight / And yet you thought of me". These are perfect pop songs and bleeding wounds. What shines through this whole evening is that gratitude-- both lyrically, and in the sense that the Maels seemed charmed, and stunned, by their reception.

"This feels like we're naked," says Russell, near the end of the night. "Thanks for pretending we're not naked."

They come back for an encore of 'The Number One Song in Heaven', with rainbow backlighting and Bush Hall's disco ball freaking out, and Moroder's sleek overblown crescendos replaced with the shonkiest '92 rave sounds Ron's keyboard could crank out -and it sounds all the better for it, faster, more alive. This is followed by a raucous 'Beat the Clock' with Ron emerging from his keyboard and poker face to break into a freestyle Charleston, knees and elbows flying, grinning like a fool. They both seem so happy to be here, still writing and performing at their oddball peak.

This whole show is a feat of stamina and courage and brilliance. It's been 40 years, and some time the end will come for Sparks, but not yet. They'll be back in October to do it again. Go see them.

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