Sparks: The Ritz, Manchester
A Friday night in fine company, Planet Slop takes in art rock legends Sparks for a rare live performance in Manchester.
Sparks tour the UK fairly infrequently, so to have them in Manchester feels like a special occasion.
The Mael brothers – flamboyant singer Russell and static, almost evil-looking keyboardist Ron – have carved out a niche. Not frequent visitors to the charts, they are nevertheless one of the great cult bands of our time.
What this affords them is freedom. They have an audience who will follow them everywhere – and the sold out crowd tonight can attest this. So that tonight’s setlist consists of most of the band’s new album Hippopotamus shouldn’t be a surprise. The audience didn’t seem to mind – far from it. They appeared to be lapping up every high pitched moment.
And so they should. Many of the new songs were highlights of the night – Edif Piath and Missionary Position in particular are as good as anything the band ever did in their commercial heyday.
The rest of the set was made up of smatterings throughout the band’s storied career, with around half of the band’s albums being represented.
Russell seems to have aged backwards. His energy is unrelenting. From a distance, and without wearing my glasses, he could easily be 20 years younger. His three-quarter pants and snazzy hairdo has something to do with that, but his unwavering voice does too.
Ron infamously barely moves on stage. But as the show reached its climax during Number One Song In Heaven, he slowly stood up from behind his keyboard, removed his jacket and sat at the front of the stage clicking his fingers.
After this, he stood up and did a bizarre dance across the stage, before returning to his keyboard, stone faced, as if nothing had happened. It’s not an exaggeration to say it drew the biggest cheer of the night.
Monster hit This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both of Us naturally came towards the end of the main set, before they returned with Franz Ferdinand collaboration Johnny Delusional and 1974’s Amateur Hour.
A lot of musical ground seemed to be covered, and it is clear why their influence looms so large. Musically, Sparks are often a little like what Queen might have sounded like had they stopped the stadium bombast and became a little more eccentric.
The two bands have much in common; they have both often been wrongly dismissed as novelty bands due to their peculiar sense of humour and sense of theatricality, and both have rich back catalogues full of music that is much more bizarre and experimental than most critics give them credit for.
Freddie might be gone, but the Mael brothers are live and kicking. Let’s hope Sparks come back sooner rather than later.
Pictures courtesy of Sakura