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LIVE REPORT: Sparks
Ned Raggett , April 25th, 2013 11:19

At last week's set at the Hollywood Forever cemetery's Masonic Hall, Ned Raggett finds Ron and Russell Mael's pared down set-up provides a refreshing take on some familiar songs

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There is something so fundamentally perfect about seeing Sparks in Hollywood, in a cozily-sized venue with cryptoreligious and mystical significance in its architecture thanks to the Freemason connection, itself next to and part of a cemetery where Rudolph Valentino, among many others, lies buried.

Not that Ron and his brother Russell had suddenly taken a turn for the self-seriously gothic, but in the same way that their acolyte Morrissey clearly appreciates ‘old-time’ Hollywood, however defined, the Maels have made a forty year-plus career out of surreal juxtapositions, theatricality and some of the funniest, sharpest lyrics in popular music. Why NOT a cemetery?

But it also highlighted the ability of Sparks to perhaps make any venue work, now that they’re over half a year into their Two Hands One Mouth tour. Performing for the first time strictly as the core duo, they're using the opportunity to create a career retrospective without falling victim to gassy remembrances between songs, ignoring the present to dwell in the past and otherwise indulging in lazy nostalgia. Then again, leave it to a band that killed the whole ‘play a beloved album all the way through’ approach by doing that for every album they’d recorded back in London in 2008 to avoid the cozy way through things.

While the show was part of the overall spillover from Coachella as any number of bands put in some extra live work between the two weekends, more than a few people there doubtless felt that the monster festival was the add-on to this event instead, with the range of fans running from grizzled veterans from the early seventies on to younger enthusiasts born over a decade and more after their big UK splash in the glam days, bespeaking the kind of hyper-enthusiasm that makes some fans commit for life to them. Yet it’s likely that the youngest people in the room were the Maels themselves, given that a pair of guys in the mid- to late-sixties gave a performance that took songs from all over the years and made everything feel like it was just written the other day.

A large part of it was down to Russell’s irrepressible energy and the not inconsiderable fact that he can still nail his falsetto moments throughout a show; if it’s not quite the heights of the past, it’s only a difference by the very slightest of degrees. Prowling the stage with his microphone, bouncing and twirling, throwing looks and twinkling his eyes, it was a mix of the polished professional and the guy who still can’t believe his luck, getting to do all this to a paying crowd hanging on every word. As the antithesis of the kind of wearying, old-before-their-time mellowness in a lot of indie rock that's returned from the seventies, it remains a delight to behold in full flight.

But Ron, as always, is the underrated secret weapon, his seemingly stone face and still demeanour onstage behind his trusty keyboard hiding not only the songwriting talent that drives the duo but also his own sense of understated performance. Many years now into his slicked-back hair/pencil moustache/glasses stage fashion approach, seeming somewhere between Walt Disney and John Waters, his own moments of dramatic gesture in miniature - a sudden smile and mouthing of a song’s lyrics, a turn of his head to another angle of the audience - can mean more than an entire concert’s worth of showboating antics or clowning.

The Two Hands One Mouth live album setlist and approach was mostly replicated for the performance, but a couple of nods to their hometown heyday in the early eighties surfaced. Among them was a beautiful version of 'Angst In My Pants' that played up the subtle melancholy in the original to the full without losing its overall spirit. With the emphasis being totally on melody and lyric over the sometimes brawling and punching rhythms that have underscored most of the band’s work from the start, hearing both long term favorites as 'At Home, At Work, At Play', 'When Do I Get To Sing "My Way"?' and the inevitable 'This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us' as well as newer standouts like 'Dick Around' was an exercise almost in catching oneself when a bassline or a drum hit failed to appear.

But the end result is freeing; not better than the familiar takes and approaches, simply different. Its apotheosis came with the encore, thanks to the astonishing reworkings of 'The Number One Song In Heaven' and 'Beat The Clock', turned into stately electronic shimmers that felt closer to a self-consciously beautiful take on late-seventies Suicide. Topped off with the new song 'Two Hands One Mouth' itself, Russell happily playing up the barely concealed sauciness of the lyrics to the full, it made for a stellar conclusion.

All this and Ron did his patented Ron dance - you have to see it to understand it - as well as busting out a beret when doing a performance as Ingmar Bergman. May these brothers continue for as long as they are able.