Live Music + Gig Reviews

Sparks @ Ritz, Manchester

22 September 2017



Twenty-three albums (24 if you include 2015’s FFS collaboration with Franz Ferdinand) in, Sparks brothers Ron and Russell Mael are showing no sign of letting up. Nor do their fans, for that matter – tonight’s show is completely sold out and there’s not a spare on the door to be had.

Yet there are people here though who are, shall we say, quite a bit younger than your typical Sparks fan – perhaps brought here by the Top 10 success of the recently released Hippopotamus. Lauded as their best album in years, it sees the Maels return to the Sparks of old: witty, literate, at times baroque, often surreal but poppy throughout. A “big joyous beast of an album” indeed. 

With the backing band and Russell sporting Breton tops while Ron, behind his Ronald-branded Roland keyboard, opts for a heavy black and white striped suit, they open with What The Hell Is It This Time? with all the bombast found on the album. Younger brother Russell’s voice is as powerful as ever, his joyful presence infectious, while Ron, typically stoical, does his gentle keys-tapping stuff. 

The new tunes really stand up live while also showcasing the recent album’s variety. Missionary Position, with lyrics like “You might pride yourself, you’re so avant-garde, but we’re neoclassicists, I guess, at heart, patronise all you like, we both like the missionary position” is something of a – pardon the pun – romp, which is impossible not to dance along to. Scandinavian Design is all rather intricate and finely put together, much like its subject matter, while Probably Nothing has a poignancy to it: with lyrics about forgetting your train of thought (“Happens a lot lately, I feel so dumb, it’ll come when it comes, but I still feel so dumb”) they pinpoint a theme of the new album, ageing. Russell is 69 and Ron is just turned 72, but on tonight’s evidence you wouldn’t think it. 

Recent single Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me) is a monster of a track live; Ron’s temperate keys against the pounding drums, blunt guitar, and Russell’s voice all blend together to bounce off the Ritz’s walls and get its sprung dance-floor going. And the full lyrical playfulness in Hippopotamus – going from a Hippopotamus in a pool to a picture of Hieronymus Bosch to a Volkswagen microbus driven by a “trippy old hippy” – hits home more and causes cackles along the way. 

While the new ones are great, it’s doubtful any new material will ever top hearing Number One Song In Heaven and then This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us one after the other. Russell’s voice on Number One Song still manages to reach a supernatural height and, when Ron’s unleashes his jig, chants of “Ron! Ron! Ron! Ron!” circulate. This Town soon thunders its way through the crowd, and images of Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un enter the mind unbidden; the song’s dramatic extravagance rather befits this time. Johnny Delusional, from 2015’s FFS, gets a well-deserved play in the encore, with Amateur Hour from 1974’s Kimono My House rounding things off. 

By the end, Ron and Russell talk to the audience, with both looking and sounding humbled – not only by the reaction of the crowd, but by the reaction to Hippopotamus nationwide. Its reception, they admit, has given them the energy to carry on writing and performing. If anyone can try and sum up the weird and rather mystifying time we currently live in – or at least make it a tad more bearable – Ron and Russell Mael can.

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Sparks @ Ritz, Manchester