Sparks: Live at the Barbican

sparks1Ron and Russell Mael – the Sparks brothers

No matter what they have done or will ever do, American duo Sparks’ legacy will comprise precisely two things: the song This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us, and Ron Mael’s moustache. As soon as the brothers burst into Britons’ homes on Top of the Pops in 1974, weirdness emanating from every pore (and from every hair on Ron’s pencil moustache), their mark on pop culture had been made. A few Top 40 successes followed This Town, but Sparks spent the next forty years – and the next twenty-three albums – paying little heed to the charts and a lot of heed to exactly what they wanted to do. These Barbican concerts are testament to their mainstream-defying career and to their age-defying enthusiasm (both are pushing 70 but have the energy of teenagers).

sparks31974’s Kimono My House

With these shows, Sparks were marking the 40-year anniversary of their most famous and highest-praised album, Kimono My House, by performing it with the 35-piece Heritage Orchestra. This band, through sheer dedication to music, deserves this event, this orchestra and these fans. Russell Mael, the sexagenarian singer with the Bieber haircut, bounced around physically and vocally with a thankful delight, revelling in playing with such a large group of talented musicians (including his be-moustached brother), and indeed it was a joy for the audience to see them come together for this show.

Sparks is a dramatic band, but the theatrics largely come from the songs themselves. The staging was nothing exciting; but do you need anything more when you have a shiny 30-piece orchestra? Each song itself has enough drama for an entire film, as in perhaps their greatest song, Here in Heaven, in which a falsetto Romeo complains that Juliet has not yet joined him in heaven as previously agreed, or “Thank God It’s Not Christmas”, in which the narrator is grateful that he doesn’t yet have to spend Christmas “family time” with his hated wife.

sparks2Ron Mael at his piano. Photograph: Andy Sturmey

Though the entire first half of the show was their rendition of the Kimono album, the second half comprised a selection of songs from throughout their career. Perhaps Sparks accidentally shot themselves in the foot 40 years ago by making This Town the opening track on their greatest album (and thus the show’s opener), but the second half was weaker and less interesting compared to the first. The second opened with The Rhythm Thief from their 2002 album Lil’ Beethoven, a song of debatable quality that announced that the audience should say “goodbye to the beat”. Most of the songs in this half sounded like, despite there being decades between them, they came from the same minor musical: it was all a bit Child-catcher, cartoonish and slightly sinister in a Teutonic way; fun but disappointingly – not a match for the brilliance of Kimono.

The concert might be summed up in the words spoken by the lady sat next to me: “I know this is pretty cheesy, but just go with it.” It was, and we did.

by Sophie Williams. Images courtesy of Andy Sturmey and Sparks