Sparks, Bush Hall, London

 

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The Independent Culture

Sparks have always had a thing for concepts and reinterpreting their own songs in new ways. Most recently they created a radio opera, The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, ingeniously contextualising the differences in European and American sensibilities.

Tonight's show – a career retrospective selection, Two Hands, One Mouth, performed by the Mael brothers alone – is by their standards a fairly simple concept, albeit lent a certain wry grandeur by the way Ron Mael prefaces it with a barroom-piano overture incorporating themes from various songs, each greeted with mighty cheers from an adoring, pan-European audience.

Ron's brother Russell, clad in dark jacket and green trousers, has the unfeasibly youthful demeanour of a debauched Justin Bieber, and the energy to match, prancing gaily around the stage as he delivers the strings of bon mots that constitute Sparks' artful lyrics. More impressive yet is that he still manages to effortlessly hit the high notes of the songs' original ranges, his falsetto clear and unwavering from the opening "Metaphor" through to an encore of "The Number One Song in Heaven" whose synthesiser setting has the glacial purity of Kraftwerk.

In between, the duo deliver a tour de force of musical styles, taking in a lilting lieder about "Sherlock Holmes", a D'Oyly Carte-esque operetta about "Hospitality", and a demonic waltz, "Under the Table". There's an echo of Albéniz in "Dick Around", and a touch of Kurt Weill about the rolling swing of "Good Morning". But it's the hits that are most warmly received, the lilting "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth" followed by the quintessential Sparks art-pop of "This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us", a song which still sounds singularly (and addictively) distinctive after four decades.

The show ends with a minimal electro version of "Beat the Clock", Ron standing at his instrument barely moving his hands, letting the machine take the strain. Eventually, his brother takes over keyboard duties, pointedly using a single stationary figure to trigger the chattering synth groove, while Ron shocks us all by moving to centre stage, smiling broadly, and doing a goofy little dance, his arms and legs swinging back and forth wildly like a puppet controlled by a toddler. It's a marvellous, warm end to an evening on which, as Russell admits, the brothers worried that their songs may have been somewhat under-dressed. "We appreciate your pretending that we're not naked," he says. Our pleasure, guys.

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