Written for Epigram
‘What the hell is it this time?’ sings Russell Mael, the chorus to the song of the same title, and opening track to Sparks’ gig at Bristol’s O2 Academy. Well, from Russell’s formidable falsetto to Ron Mael’s signature dance during ‘The Number One Song in Heaven’, this time, as always, Sparks’ 90-minute set is energetic, tenacious and full of the quirky brilliance that first made them famous.
It’s been an exciting few weeks for the Mael brothers – they’ve performed all over Europe whilst their 23rd album, Hippopotamus, charted at number seven in the UK album charts, their first time in the UK top 10 in over 40 years.
It might seem that 2017 is the Sparks renaissance. But, although Hippopotamus is their first album since 2009, the band haven’t been away – they’ve toured extensively, and in 2015, formed the supergroup FFS with indie-heroes Franz Ferdinand. Their recent success can hardly be put down to comeback hype – it’s more a case of the fact that, as Russell once sung, “talent is an asset” – and as their Bristol gig shows – the Mael brothers surely have it in spades.
The setlist surveys their entire career, and strikes a perfect balance between new material and old favourites – from the glam rock glory of 1974’s ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us’, to the fantastic theatricality of 2006’s ‘Dick Around’. Another highlight is the hypnotic ‘My Baby’s Taking Me Home’ from Lil’ Beethoven. To successfully create a track with such apocalyptic urgency when its lyrics consist of only the title repeated is one thing, but to make it work live is something else – yet Sparks pull it off wonderfully.
But what is most thrilling about this tour is the chance to hear the new tracks performed. ‘Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)’, third single from Hippopotamus, feels even more robust live, whilst ‘Missionary Position’ is a quintessentially Sparks track and sees Russell frolicking around the stage. It’s probably a first for the venue to have its crowd eagerly singing along about the finer points of Ikea furniture during ‘Scandinavian Design’, but it goes down remarkably well.
As final track ‘Amateur Hour’ draws to a triumphant close, the brothers seem genuinely astounded by the reaction they receive. The applause continues long after they leave the stage as if their fans are willing them to continue for years and years to come – luckily, right now, Sparks show no sign of slowing down.