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Sparks, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire review - age does not wither them | reviews, news & interviews

Sparks, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire review - age does not wither them

Sparks, O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire review - age does not wither them

At home in London, old-timers Ron and Russell Mael find an audience that remembers

'Hippopotamus': the new album from Sparks

It’s more than 40 years since Sparks appeared on Top of the Pops with “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us”, one of a handful of hits from the brothers Mael, Ron and Russell, who grew up in 1950s and ‘60s LA detesting the “cerebral and sedate” folk boom and grooving to such British acts as the Who and the Kinks. They spent part of the Seventies in London, gaining an Island Records deal on the back of an Old Grey Whistle Test performance.

They looked weird then and they still do, Russell Mael leaping about manically like an ageing pixie, brother Ron still sitting impassively behind his keyboards, staring expressionless into the audience – one that went wild for them. There was, you might say, Maelstrom in the mosh pit: from my seated perch high above stage left, it was possible to look down on an audience – many of them clearly in possession of a Freedom Pass, and who had already been standing for the better part of two hours by the time Sparks began playing – bopping and gesticulating and singing along to songs that had marked their youth, among them “When Do I Get To Sing My Way?” and “The Number One Song in Heaven”.

'Hippopotamus' marks a return to what passes for traditional pop

The Maels aren’t exactly spring chickens, though Russell’s energy and unimpaired vocal range belie his years. London holds a special place in their hearts and toward the end of the show they turned their back on the audience to take a selfie, posing against a sea of raised arms as the house lights came on. Even Ron seemed moved. The two London gigs closed the UK leg of their tour.

No detail of presentation was too small: the four-piece band (lead guitar, bass, a second keyboard, drums) wore black sweaters with white stripes, matching socks peeking out below dark trousers. Russell’s attire comprised a white sweater with black stripes over knee-length shorts which revealed skinny white legs (a hint of varicose veins) and feet shod in black sneakers with red laces. Ron sported a black-and-white striped jacket over a white shirt and striped tie over baggy black trousers. He wore Crocs, though whether as a style statement or for comfort it wasn’t clear. The guitars were white, the huge drum kit black, and the two bass drums bore the outline of a hippo. Hippopotamus is, of course, their latest album.

It has given Sparks their first Top 10 appearance in more than four decades, and marks a return to what passes for traditional pop following two radio musicals. Many of its 15 songs featured in the live show, including “Propaganda”, “Missionary Position”, “Edith Piaf Said It Better Than Me” and of course the title track (just how did Russell remember the complicated lyric?). The audience already knew them all but were pleased to hear some of the oldies, among them “Dick Around”, “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth” and “I Wish You Were Fun”. During “The Number One Song in Heaven”, Ron stood up, removed his jacket, which he folded neatly and placed atop his keyboard, and danced manically for 30 seconds before sitting down again. Everyone cheered. “Johnny Delusional” and “Amateur Hour” were the encores, though the crowd demanded more.

Outside O2 in the deluge after the show, two middle-aged guys who’d met by chance at the gig hugged each other. They’d been in a South Woodford flatshare in Sparks’ heyday and hadn’t seen each other for more than 20 years. They wanted to exchange mobile numbers but didn’t have their reading specs, so sought help as we all huddled under the bus stop. Russell and Ron would surely be amused.


The Maels aren’t exactly spring chickens, though Russell’s energy and unimpaired vocal range belie his years


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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