It’s been a very long wait for me to finally see Sparks perform live for the first time, well over forty years in fact. 20 years since their last visit to Norwich for a UEA gig I was inexplicably absent from, and so when this Waterfront gig was announced I made sure I was online and ready the minute the tickets went on sale. It isn’t often I do that but Sparks are no ordinary band. They produced the first single I ever owned in This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us and all the memories and emotions associated with that, and the first album too. One day in 1974 Sparks appeared on TOTP looking and sounding like nobody else, their different-ness appealed and the next day everyone at school was talking about it, especially Ron’s stare. I followed the single’s progress up the charts every Tuesday during lunch-break on my tiny transistor radio as the Top 40 was announced, in the days when everyone had a radio and nobody had a mobile phone. Then, on a holiday trip to France to visit family in the mid-seventies when I was about ten my French Uncle wanted to buy me a present and asked me to choose any album I wanted from the record section at the supermarket near Calais shortly after meeting me from the hovercraft. I chose Kimono My House and both these records are still with me to this day. I loved Sparks and so did my younger brother, we had a big, shared musical bond with Sparks like no other band seemed able to create.
So it was that we both went to the Waterfront for our first gig together since 1986 and Big Audio Dynamite (supported by The Chiefs of Relief). I felt weirdly nervous about this gig, perhaps because of the weight of excitement and anticipation I was feeling but when Sparks posted on Instagram a picture of their arrival at Norwich Station the excitement was soaring and I was at The Waterfront early, shortly after 7pm. There was already a sizeable queue which was nothing compared to what it was twenty minutes later, one of the longest queues I have seen here … there was a LOT of anticipation for this sellout gig and everyone wanted to bagsy a decent view. I only have a handful of “crapcam” phone snaps for this write-up but here goes:
Support came from Mister Goodnite who – it later transpired – is Sparks’ own second keyboard player. Slightly off the wall he performed songs to some records of instrumentals and I wish I knew the origins of these songs, whether they are vinyl finds from thrift stores he put words to or what, the music was like obscure 70s soundtracks, or B movie background muzak, and his lyrics were amusing and clever. Think Vegas lounge, a crooner singing to his own record collection. Slightly bonkers and gloriously strange and different. His short set got people in the mood.
Just after 9pm, to a really warm and heartfelt welcome, Sparks came bounding onstage all in nautical stripes, Russell looking every inch a cartoon French cabin boy or Hergé comic strip character, and launched into a magnificent What the Hell is it This Time, from the new album Hippopotamus, which Russell proudly declared was by the band currently sitting at number 7 in the UK album charts on the first date of the UK tour. I have this album, having pre-ordered the vinyl some months ago and love it as much as Kimono My House and Propaganda already. Seeing them on the BBC coverage of the 6Music Festival in Glasgow some months ago it was not a case of waiting for the old hits, the new material is every bit as strong and standouts from it played in the Waterfront set included a new masterpiece in Edith Piaf (Said it Better Than Me), plus I Wish You Were Fun, Missionary Position, and of course the wonderful title track itself. There are always several layers to the songs for those looking deeper.
Interspersed throughout the set were some older favourites and the standard throughout the night was top notch with a truly excellent band complimenting Ron and Russell, having the energy and sound I have always loved about the band to a tee. First goosebumps moment was Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth, and to hear such songs as At Home, At Work, At Play, My Baby’s Taking Me Home, Propaganda, When Do I Get to Sing My Way, Number One Song in Heaven, Amateur Hour, the goodtime swing feel of I Wish You Were Fun and, gloriously, This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us. I almost cried, I am sure some did. They played just about everything I could have wished for. Greedily, I tried thinking afterwards about some personal faves, omissions that could have made it into the set, Get in the Swing and Hasta Manana, Monsieur, for sentimental reasons were about all I could come up with. But I wasn’t here just for nostalgia as I adore the new material too, and they got the balance right playing everything, old and new which all gelled together perfectly. They played songs that I did not even dare to dream for, I am so happy! We even got to see Ron get up from his Roland piano – renamed “Ronald” – for some dancing to wild cheers during Number One Song in Heaven. Just about the perfect band, proud of their strong new material but not bored of their older hits either, they played everything with equal gusto.
This sincerely was one of the most emotional, celebratory and triumphant gigs I have ever experienced, it doesn’t get much more special than this and the band were clearly feeling it too. There were moments after taking their bows where they were just taking in the scenes and love from the crowd which was enveloping them like a caressing wave. This was a very special night indeed with prolonged cheers and clapping, for several minutes both band and audience were saluting and thanking each other. What a night, so beautiful and special and fun. The music was absolutely fantastic too of course, twenty songs over the course of about ninety minutes or so of pure magic. Isn’t music incredible?
I think he did this with everyone in the first few rows but making eye-contact with Ron and his infamous glare was also a powerful experience, like connecting with a wise owl, a higher being who was seeing into my soul and knew exactly what I was feeling and what the gig meant to me.
I feel I should also thank California, that’s two gigs now in the space of five days from Californian bands that have just been beyond brilliant, after Rainbow Girls visited last week. Oddly enough Sparks also follow the same route from Norwich to Newcastle for their next date of the Hippopotamus Tour. As for the Waterfront, the gigs keep on coming. Tuesday 19 September they host The Jesus and Mary Chain with support from Brix and the Extricated (featuring former Fall members), whilst upstairs in the studio will be Slim Cessna’s Auto Club. Norwich: Music City, UK.
Terrific, joyous atmosphere in the Waterfront for this gig, and spot-on sound too. A concert elevated above simply being great, this was on another plane. There was so much love in the room, the band tight and enjoying it and it wasn’t just about hearing the old classics, songs from the current album are already the new classics and the Mael brothers are clearly having a lot of fun with fire in their belly and an abundance of love and passion for what they are doing. It’s clear to see. Sparks’ time has come around again and they are more than ready. Sensational band and a sensational night.
It’s almost impossible for me to put into words what this gig meant to me … there are not many opportunities at my age to hear the first record I ever bought (well, my Mum bought it for me: This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us, 1974) performed live by the people who composed it … and in my home city … and look right into the eyes of Ron Mael while it is being played (of course I blinked first) … and in the company of my brother at a gig together for the first time in over thirty years. Tonight was all kinds of special, thank you Sparks, you can have no idea how much tonight meant to me … and my brother … plus you played everything we could have wished for and were amazing. New songs making a fantastic soundtrack now just as the older ones soundtracked our childhood. Two brothers in the audience watched two brothers onstage perform absolute magic. It means so much, thank you.
Obviously none of us present at the gig were aware at the time that Sparks were featured on Newsnight at the very time we were watching them onstage. You can see the clip here:
all rights reserved (c) shashamane 2017