Ron and Russell Mael have demonstrated over the years that they are talented and complex characters. Tonight they showed that they are courageous types too by taking on the twin challenges of the Tuesday night graveyard shift in Birmingham and the stripped down format for their Two Hands, One Mouth tour.
Both were met with huge success. The Institute was more than well populated and their piano and vocals left most people wondering what more a full band could have added to the performance.
With just the two of them the entrance was low key. Ron took to the stage for the Two Hands, One Mouth Overture dressed all in black, topped off with large round spectacles and thinning back hair swept back. This was a proper overture, trailing what was to come and giving the whole thing an almost surreal air of the music hall, which became more apparent with the appearance of Russell for Hospitality on Parade, with his tweed jacket and pantaloons looking like a master of ceremonies from the 1920s. At times the piano sounded like something that would accompany a silent movie especially when Ron ad-libbed his way through a comical wardrobe malfunction where Russell’s earphone battery pack fell off.
Maybe it was a conscious effort to make the act sound and feel traditional and harking back to something older. The current tour has stemmed from a performance at Bush Hall earlier this year when the brothers decided to push the boundaries one more time by dispensing with the luxury of a band, leaving keyboards and voice to cover songs from almost forty years and twenty albums of material. The experiment was a phenomenal success. So what was all the fuss about? Although Sparks have always been essentially the two brothers they have also always performed as part of a band, and as Ron claimed at the end of the night, perhaps they had always hidden behind it. Then there was the way that they did it. They could have presented this as an unplugged session, or looked to get all cosy with the audience but as far as I could tell, they treated the performance as if it was any other.
The result tonight was an illustration of how good these two people are at what they do. Sparks music is not just about a few tunes but is built on a foundation of their polymaths approach to the work as a whole. These are the guys who took seven years off to produce and direct a movie. These are the guys who wrote what could be regarded as an opera in the form of The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, now ready as a stage musical and with a film in the pipeline.
They provided the same quirky contrast as they did on their first Top of the Pops appearance all those years ago. Ron sitting or standing stock-still and expressionless, only his hands and eyes moving and Russell being all movement, leaping and dancing all over the stage filling the band-shaped hole. In fact Ron moved only twice: once to don a fetching beret for Excerpts From The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman and again at the end to do his traditional Ron Stickman dance to great applause and chants of Ron! Ron! Ron!
The crowd loved it and them. Most of the audience were of a tender age and looked as if they had been around when Muff Winwood first brought the brothers to the UK from LA. A fact that Russell made a point of explaining , giving them their Birmingham connection. None of the songs suffered from the pared down format, and in fact some like Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth and The Number One Song In Heaven seemed sharper and cleaner. Only This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us sounded a bit thin, but there was no room for sound effects or ricocheting bullets.
At the end the brothers seemed genuinely surprised and pleased at the warmth of the reception they received, but I think they knew their duo was going to be a success. I wonder what they will do next?
Two Hands, One Mouth Overture
Hospitality on Parade
At Home, At Work, At Play
Under The Table With Her
My Baby’s Taking Me Home
Singing In The Shower
The Wedding of Jacqueline Kennedy To Russell Mael
Excerpts From The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman
Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth
This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us
The Rhythm Thief
When Do I Get To Sing “My Way”
The Number One Song In Heaven
Beat The Clock
Two Hands, One Mouth
Review by Ian Gelling
Photography by Stephanie Colledge