First Night: The Mael brothers are back: older, better and ballsier

Sparks Shepherds Bush Empire London
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The Independent Online
LAST NIGHT'S crowd was an intriguing mix of sexualities, nationalities and ages. As we looked expectantly at a stage dominated by giant white balloons, a spontaneous chant of "we want Ron!" began to gain voices. The Ron in question was keyboard-player Ron Mael, former model, brother of singer Russell, and writer of Sparks' memorable 1974 hit "This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us." These days, his trademark moustache has been reduced to what looks like a sliver of Etch-A-Sketch filings, but he still has the aura of a friendly Fuhrer.

If only as a nostalgia exercise, I'd expected to enjoy tonight, but what transpired was much more potent. While many of Sparks' glam-era contemporaries have opted for the chicken-in-a-basket circuit, this Los Angeles-based duo have re-booted their 70s hits armed with a keen understanding of 90s dance. "Amateur Hour" - stripped of its guitars and hot-wired for techno - was a case in point, while their four-on-the-floor version of "Doe A Deer" ( I kid you not) was a camped-up triumph.

Perhaps because some parts of the arrangements emanated from a DAT player, the PA sound was superbly detailed. The gunshot in "This Town..." ricocheted from speaker to speaker, "Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth" was transformed into a huge slice of ambient trance, and Russell Mael's falsetto was as malleable as ever (no chickening-out of the high notes, here).

Every now and then, they'd intersperse songs with brief slices of surrealist theatre from Ron, and thus a gig became a show. His Waiting For Godot - replete with toy-dog - was good, but the bit where he levitated his "illegitimate baby son, Lenny", was more spectacular. What really cemented this performance, though, was the obvious strength of the new material. Rhythmically, the title track of the forthcoming album Balls tipped the hat to The Prodigy's "Firestarter", and found Russell exhorting us to be courageous; to show some... well, balls.

Elsewhere, "More Than A Sex Machine" tagged an anthemic, electronica chorus to a quietly contemplative lyric, the singer now grappling with the downside of being perceived as a shag and nothing more. (A tad presumptuous for a pop star who's now approaching 50, you might argue, but I think the gay contingent of last night's crowd would have disagreed.)

A triumphant return, then, and one which saw Ron Mael re-instated as one of pop-culture's cult icons. Tongues still firmly in cheek, Sparks are back with balls. Their forthcoming (eighteenth!) album looks set to be their best in years.

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