Sparks - The Lowry Theatre Salford - 15.2.06

A few weeks ago Designer Magazine declared Spark's 20th album "Hello Young Lovers" to be the counterbalance to the hype of the Arctic Monkeys and "a band not afraid to be assured, overblown and wonderfully eccentric". We also suggested that as well as being an album for the long-standing fans that followers of the Polyphonic Spree and Rufus Wainwright would certainly be enamoured by the work of the brothers Mael if they'd previously not dabbled in Sparks extensive back catalogue. As we walked in tonight's show at the sumptuous Lowry theatre it compounded all our expectations as the young met old, the overtly camp met rucking males and the arty met the artless. If anything it was proof that appealing to everyone doesn't necessarily mean just appealing to the man on the street.

Sparks are the point where art meets music, a joyful Frisian of simplistic gestures turned into grand ideas and theories about human emotion and those little things that make the world turn round. Eschewing the notion of a support act the focus was clearly on Ron and Russ Mael (ably backed by a cast of four musicians and vocalist who'd previously worked with Faith No More and PJ Harvey), but the projections behind them took up much of the focus for the first half of tonight's show which was a straight run through the bands recently released "Hello Young Lovers".

With the lush orchestration of the album it could have been impossible to translate to the live stage, but it was clear that rather than try and recreate the orchestration with a small number of violin players it was better to simply leave this to the modern technology of a DAT tape and concentrate on the show itself. It's the little touches that help as well. The fact that Ron has the trademark Roland lettering changed to Ronald is as of much importance as the larger gesture's such as the fight scene's with Ron fighting his projected alter-ego during "Very Next Fight". Naturally it's Russ that does the majority of the speaking, although he's hardly the chatty killer, but when Ron introduces "Baby Baby Can I Invade You Country" as "It's often said that Sparks don't deal with what's going on in the real world, this is out attempt after 20 albums" you can tell that he's the silent thinker behind every single concept of the bands music and live show. During "Rock Rock Rock", a symphony with occasional bursts of air guitar, the speaker stacks set on fire flaming the sort of imaginary pyrotechnics the Darkness could only dream for.

Elsewhere there's the rock'n'roll of "Waterproof", the strangely surreal singing dancing cats during "Here Kitty" and the preposterous moment during "As I Sit To Play The Organ At The Notre Dame Cathedral" where does just that against the projected backdrop as a gospel choir rears it's head every 2 minutes. It's a fitting finale for first half and justification if there's not one more album released in 2006, it doesn't matter for we've heard and witness potentially the best album so far this year.

The second album takes you from the musical theatre to the theatre of rock'n'roll, god dammit a fight even breaks out in the audience as the lights dim. With a change of outfits from the regimented all black of the first half, the second half is awash with colour with Russ looking like an old skool Butlin's rep and Ron dressed rather more dowdy like a bank clerk or funeral director. A real mix and match collection containing hits from their whole career they start off with a trio of storming classics in "Happy Hunting Ground", "Bon Voyage" and "Hospitality On Parade" before leading into their late camp hi-energy period with "Music That You Can Dance To", "Number 1 In Heaven" and "When Do I Get To Sing My Way".

"This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us" is the song that many people associate with Sparks, but in truth in this context it's simply another great song amongst many rather than being that one song that people are waiting patiently for. If anything, it doesn't actually stand up the same way since Justin Hawkins got his pesky mitts all over it last year.

After a short encore they return for anti-Ibiza techno rant of "The Rhythm Thief" and the hip hop slanging "Suburban Home Boy" before ending with just a vocal and piano for "Every Dog Will Have It's Day".

With a show lasting well over 2 hour Sparks proved that the veterans always deliver the goods, but 20 years into their career they are producing albums and live shows which are more experimental than those half their age. It's not often you use the word genius with any sincerity, but to Sparks that surely applies.

Alex McCann

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