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LIVE: Sparks / Mr.B The Gentleman Rhymer – The Civic At The Halls, Wolverhampton, 22/06/2023

LIVE: Sparks / Mr.B The Gentleman Rhymer – The Civic At The Halls, Wolverhampton, 22/06/2023

After being closed down for essential maintenance for over seven years, The Halls, (taking in the re-booted Civic and adjacent Wulfrun Halls), re-opened for business just last month with a triumphant show from adopted locals Blur (yes, they are of course from Essex but are sort of honorary Wulfrunians!) and just last night hosted Siouxsie. Both rooms have been expanded too and there is a celebratory air around the venue tonight in anticipation of a show by the cherished, (and may we utilise the over-used term of ‘legendary’?), Sparks, who made their first forays into music back in 1966 before settling on their current name in 1972.

Before the Mael brothers grace the stage, we have Mr B. The Gentleman Rhymer, AKA Jim Burke, the man with one of music’s most surprising career trajectories, from Collapsed Lung, (he was indeed the voice of ‘Eat My Goal’), to his present incarnation as a ‘chap hop’ artist, accompanying himself on banjolele and delivering his rap missives in Received Pronunciation, while dressed in his finely tailored threads. He’s very entertaining and jokes that when playing his own show in Canterbury tomorrow, he’ll use tonight’s dressing room sign as a backdrop. He finishes with a cover of tonight’s headliners’ very own ‘Suburban Homeboy’, which suits him down to the ground and could almost be his manifesto!

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Sparks take to the stage to the orchestral strains of their very own ‘Take Me For A Ride’ from this year’s album The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte, the four members of the touring band lining up across the back of the stage to allow Russell and Ron Mael room at the front of the stage. Using such a recent song as intro music serves notice that Sparks are not a mere ‘heritage’ act, but artistically still very much a going concern. There’s nothing wrong with older bands ploughing through the hits every night, but the Maels clearly want to strike a balance between celebrating their legacy and showing that they are still capable of producing great work.

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Care has been taken with the sequencing too; ‘So May We Start’, (from their Annette film soundtrack of 2021), is a good place to start, (the answer from the audience is an emphatic ‘yes’). It’s a relatively gentle opener leading into the discordance of the intro of the new album’s title track, Russell getting his first opportunity to bound around the stage like someone half a century younger while Ron sits behind his keyboard with trademark stony-faced demeanour. Tonight’s set zig-zags carefully through the years, going back as far as their 1972 album A Woofer In Tweeter’s Clothing with ‘Beaver O’Lindy’, its gentle start giving way to a stomping section including the spelling out of the song’s name complete with matching on-stage graphics. 1980’s Terminal Jive is represented by the brilliant ‘When I’m With You’ and then it’s back to 2023 with a couple more from …Latte: “This song is from the perspective of a 22-hour old baby”, says Russell in advance of the playful ‘Nothing Is As Good As They Say It Is’ , to huge cheers from the crowd. “A lot of fans of 22-hour old babies in Wolverhampton” observes Russell drily before the song is dispatched.

The new record is represented by six songs (as well as that intro tape), but there’s plenty of room for older material too, the belligerent ‘Balls’, title track of their 2000 album, and a couple from 1986’s Music That You Can Dance To, the second of which is the title track and raises anyone still seated to their feet. The anthemic ‘When Do I Get To Sing “My Way”’ still seems like a more recent Sparks song; it’s a sobering thought to think that it was released a mere two-fifths or so of the way through their journey. ‘The Number One Song In Heaven’ arrives next and is absolutely euphoric, Russell for once given a run for his money in the dancing stakes as Ron unexpectedly rises from behind his keyboard to perform a frantic dance for a few seconds before stopping, looking down at the floor, and shuffling back to his default position. Ron, behind his keyboard adorned with a doctored ‘Roland’ logo (it reads ‘Ronald’!) gets his own football crowd-style chants between songs; make no mistake, these septuagenarian brothers are adored by their audience.

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As if that wasn’t enough, next up is possibly the band’s best known tune, the 1974 classic ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us’ on which the rest of the band get to show their mettle with a faithfully muscular reading of the song. It’s the only song tonight from their landmark album Kimono My House. This Town…’ might seem like an obvious closer, but we get the fitting ‘Gee, That Was Fun’ from the new record to close, before a triumphant encore of Lil’ Beethoven’s ‘My Baby’s Taking Me Home’ and a relatively new one to underline the whole show: ‘All That’ from 2020, as if the band want to emphasise that they are still very much living in the 21st Century. On this evidence, it’s just possible that they will outlast us all!

  • June 25, 2023