Before I start this review, I'd like to once again say a big thank you to photographer extraordinaire Tony Bartolo. Tony is a committed Sparks fan, and was the only press photographer to cover every night of 21x21. He was back again for both nights at the Forum, and has once again kindly allowed me to use some of his stunning photos for this review. You can see more of his work in my 21x21 reviews (links at the bottom of this review).
After a horrendous journey I arrive late (but still before my friend who I was supposed to be meeting!)... it's taken me the best part of 3 hours to travel the measily 42 miles from Piley Towers to Kentish Town. Multimap rather cockily reckoned I could do it in a hour!! Mind you, Multimap has still yet to grasp the concept that there may be more than just MY car on the road! As it turns out, the world and his wife are out tonight, and I've been stuck in 4 separate traffic jams on route....
I'm a stressed, gibbering wreck on entering the venue, yet within minutes, the nightmare of the last 3 hours disappears, and I have a inane grin stuck to my face.... you just can't feel pissed off at a Sparks gig can you?! The handy thing with turning up late to a live run through of an album is you know exactly how much you've missed!! It could have been worse, I make it that I was 3 minutes and 37 seconds late (approximately!)... So it's midway through 'Good Morning' that I join the fun. Russell was well in his stride - strutting and skipping the length of the stage, safe in the knowledge that this audience was already in the palm of his hand.
It looks like I'm in for another one of those inspired Sparks performances, so much more than 'just' a gig. Once again the trademark video screen is in operation... but it's not there as a simple backdrop, theses days the screen is part of the band, there to be interacted with and provide further interpretation to the lyrics. The screen is bordered by a thick, golden, antique style picture frame. Either side of the screen are the band, Steven Nistor on drums, Jim Wilson on guitar and Marcus Blake on bass, each band member is also encased in an equally impressive wooden frame, leaving just Ron and Russ as the only members of the team not boxed in!
'Strange Animal' is a joy, and the band break into the frenzied chorus with ease. Next up is 'I Can't Believe That You Would Fall For All The Crap In This Song'.... which brings that famous Mael sense of humour to the forefront once more. Ron spends much of the song centre stage alongside Russell, joining his brother in performing the 'actions' that go with this track. I can't imagine anyone else getting away with something like this, it would leave just about every other artist looking ridiculous!! Yet for Sparks, it's a slice of genius and the oddness fits perfectly into their world. Top marks also must go to the crowd, the vast majority of whom have memorised the actions and join in! An impressive feat, made all the more so when you consider this is only the 3rd time Sparks have perform this album to a British audience (and the 2nd time was last night!!) The power of YouTube I guess!
Ron has competition on 'Let The Monkey Drive', as an animated version of the monkey from the albums cover takes to the keyboard on-screen! 'I've Never Been High' is as beautiful and moving as ever, and really shows just how incredible Russell's voice is sounding. '(She Got Me) Pregnant' is another slice of wonderful Mael madness!! The 'pregnant' dancers are a master-stroke, as they huff and puff their way through the routine, whilst holding on to their 'bumps'! Very funny, very enjoyable, VERY Sparks!
Next up is the gentle poke at one of their biggest fans... 'Lighten Up Morrissey' (how I'd love to know what he thinks of this song! my guess is he can't believe his luck!), followed by the majestic 'Renaissance'. Once again the dancers are used to great effect on this ode to the cultural period of the 16th Century.
Middle ages sucked,
Spent all day in prayer,
Judgement Day was everyday and
Witches burning everywhere
But now we are in luck
Paintings filled with foxy women
No one's got a cross to bear
'The Director Never Yelled "Cut"' is almost hypnotic, and it's the first alarm bell in my head that this album is almost through. I've been in a timeless 'dream state' since I walked in! 'Photoshop' once again allows for more humour. The video screen has turned into a desktop monitor, with a freshly 'cut n pasted' piano on it. Ron, with his back to the audience, proceeds to 'play' the piano, whilst fighting throughout with the mouse operator who is forever manipulating the picture! it stretches, it shrinks, it twists, it turns, it duplicate... all the while Ron is battling to catch up and continue playing it! How do they come up with these ideas?! By the time the song has ended, I realise that I have hardly looked at Russell, transfixed on Ron's appearance in his very own Looney Toon cartoon.
'Likeable' is the final, rather emotional song of the set. As the band extends the final few bars of the tune, Russell continues to loop those haunting end harmonies. This gives Ron the chance to once again leave the confines of the keyboard, and head towards the video screen. The cover of the very first Sparks album (1971's Halfnelson) appears to to a huge reaction from the crowd. Ron pulls out a lighter, flicks it, and bends down the the bottom of the screen.... Whoooosh!! the cover is engulfed in flames (well... video flames!), and as it burns away, the image is replaced with the second album (1972's A Woofer in Tweeter's Clothing)... and so it goes on, as Ron systematically destroys each of their previous 20 albums. Each album receives a great response when it appears on screen, but for some, the cheers are deafening.... so much so that Russell (who is busy concentrating on keeping those repetitive harmonies going) can't help but take a sneaky peak at the screen behind him to see which album is creating such a reaction! He grins widely, then returns to face the audience. As album number 20 (2006's Hello Young Lovers) fades away, the current album cover appears, Ron throws the lighter over his shoulder and walks away.... It's quite a poignant finale to the set, although maybe not as poignant as it seemed when they performed this ending for the first time. Seeing this ritual performed on the final night of the 21x21 concerts last year, left many fans wondering what the significance was.... were Sparks really saying goodbye to their back catalogue? Had the previous 20 nights been a farewell to those albums loved by so many? In some ways I guess it was, it's unlikely they will ever perform them all again in their entirety like that, but it's a pretty safe bet that we will continue to enjoy seeing their many highlights performed live in the future.
By the time Sparks re-appear for the second half, all traces of picture frames and video screens are gone. It's a stripped down look and feel for the performance of the hugely influential album 'No. 1 In Heaven'. Make no mistake about it, although there had been electronic albums before this one, No. 1 (produced by Giorgio Moroder) influenced a whole generation of Euro electronic dance music when it was unleashed in 1979. The Pets Shop Boys, Soft Cell, Bronski Beat, Erasure and many more were all playing this in their bedrooms! Yet unlike so many of those early 80's electro albums, which sounded stark and tinny, No. 1 In Heaven has such a full and rich sound. So much so that it has taken almost 30 years for technology to catch up sufficiently, and enable Sparks to replicate the sound in a live environment (last year was the first time they had ever performed it live)... and boy was it worth the wait!
It's a stunning run through of this album that I have know for almost all of my life! It's faithful, yet so very fresh sounding. It sounds of it's time, yet still so futuristic. Russell seems to have unlimited energy, as he transports us back to the late 70's. The moment 'Tryouts For The Human Race' started, the whole venue seemed to be dancing, and they don't stop until the very last note of 'Number One Song In Heaven'. Every one of these six tracks is a masterpiece, and every one is perfectly performed... Russell still hitting that incredible falsetto on the chorus of 'Beat the Clock' with ease. Each track is greeting with an incredible reaction from the crowd, and the atmosphere is nothing short of electric (rather appropriately!). I'm left feeling breathless.
The band return once more to give us a few more treats from the 70's... Propaganda, At Home At Work At Play, B.C. and finally This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both Of Us.
As is usually the case at the end of a Sparks show, Ron and Russell seem a little overawed at the audience reaction.... they seem genuinely touched by the warmth and love in the room. I don't think I have seen any other performer who is as 'in tune' with their audience (and vica versa). Going to see Sparks is a real event, but I'm pretty sure it's a real event for the band too... and that's what make these shows so very special.
SPARKS RELATED LINKS:
Tony Bartolo is the only photographer in the world who took professional photos every night of the whole 21x21 event. Be sure to visit his excellent website - Snazmusic here
See my review of the 21x21 Propaganda show here complete with exclusive professional photos.
My review of the 21x21 Hello Young Lovers show with exclusive professional photos is here.
Download or listen to the full 22 minute interview that Sparks gave Simon Mayo to promote 21x21 here
See my Introducing Sparks article here, containing exclusive comments from Ron and Russell Mael!
My exclusive interview with ex-Sparks member Martin Gordon is here and here
My interview with indie popsters Silvery is here, and there's plenty of Sparks related chat!
Visit the official Sparks websitee here
Visit the official Sparks MySpace Page here
Not from the Forum show, but here is a great clip of Ron fighting with that keyboard during 'Photoshop'
Again, not from the Forum, but an audience video of Ron burning the previous 20 Sparks albums... VERY effective!