Sparks At The Button Factory 29th of October 2012
It’s a night of firsts. Formed 41 years ago and with a daunting 22 albums under their belt, it seems unlikely that Sparks wouldn’t have visited Dublin before. They haven’t though, their only Irish appearance being at Electric Picnic 2006. Having been used to touring with a full band, this is also the first tour made up of only the Mael brothers themselves and a keyboard, no computers. The ‘Two Hands, One Mouth’ tour being as close as a band like Sparks will ever get to an acoustic set.
Tension is built in The Button Factory with new song Two Hands, One Mouth being played on the soundsystem on a loop, eliciting groans and laughs from the audience at the fourth play. Silently, Ron Mael appears and sits at the ‘Ronald’ emblazoned keyboard jauntily playing intros to all the songs we expect to hear tonight, a kind of Blackpool Pleasure Beach medley of instantly recognisable hits, eventually settling down into Hospitality On Parade. Russell emerging from the wings and standing still at the mic for all of two minutes before exploding into life, the hyperactive teen eruption, alarming to those who aren’t expecting it.
Each song brings with it a slightly different character, Metaphor introducing Russell’s frenzied snarling falsetto. Sherlock Holmes’ “Do you want to have fun?” breakdown having him jerk along like a puppet. Whereas The Rhythm Thief shows his switch from charming Bryan Ferry type to a terrible Childcatcher-esque character, leering at his brother threateningly. The interplay between the brothers is key to what they do, Russell’s mania heightened by Ron’s stillness, the occasional raised eyebrow and the perpetual frown making the moments when he breaks his silence especially memorable. Taking on the role of an answerphone for The Wedding Of Jacqueline Kennedy To Russell Mael and his dour portrayal of Ingmar Bergman in their excerpts from ‘The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman’, a nod to comedy in his donning of a beret while Russell spits venom as a vengeful Hollywood executive. As delighted by the audience reception as by the news they have to impart, Russell giddily informs us that the concept album is not dead with plans for a stage musical and feature film of the Bergman album opera are being hatched.
Their songs are necessarily altered for the ‘Two Hands One Mouth’ setting and while most survive triumphantly there are a few casualties. Multitracked orchestral rock odyssey Dick Around is truncated to the point of meaninglessness, missing the contrast and drama the original has, coming across slightly more Norman Wisdom than Bohemian Rhapsody. This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us tries to replace some lost energy with Russell urging the audience into handclaps and a room full of devotees clapping as if their lives depend on it, achieves something very close to what it should be. My Baby’s Taking Me Home is a lot to swallow with no vocal effects, just piano and voice repeating the mantra. But it comes through the tunnel of annoyance to the other side, leaving an audience dependent on the familiarity of the words that finish all too soon.
A glitterball of an encore is called for and disco lights scan the stage while the synths are beefed up to exactly what they should be for The No. 1 Song In Heaven and Beat The Clock which sees Russ locked in his own dance world, back to the audience and taking over synth duties while Ron shuffles centre stage and grins the audience into submission, doing his own version of The Running Man before resuming his composure and mopping his brow theatrically.
And they thank us, warmly and humbly for being here on the last show of this leg of the tour to see them do this for the first time, chants of “We’re not worthy!” following them offstage to their seemingly genuine bafflement. It’s pure intellectual pop, what The Magnetic Fields could do if Stephin Merritt cared a fig about stage craft and what Queen might have developed into had Freddie lived. When Russell performs the poignant When Do I Get To Sing My Way? you feel that, for his fans, he already is.