The first time John Lennon saw Sparks on television, performing "This Town Ain't Big Enough for Both of Us" in 1974, he is alleged to have turned around and sputtered, "f*ck me, it's Adolf Hitler." More than a quarter of a century later, as the cameras close in on Ron Mael's still-bristling toothbrush mustache, the same shock of misrecognition is still possible, all the more so since the startling avant weirdness of Sparks themselves remains as pronounced today as it ever did back then. From the Formula One falsetto of "Something for the Girl With Everything" to the nagging self-torment of "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'," from the second-album indecision of "Girl From Germany" to the latest LP's sultry "Scheherazade," Sparks are as much an acquired taste as they ever were -- and the 2,000-plus souls packed into London's Shepherds Bush Empire to witness the Mael brothers' first London concert in six years wouldn't have it any other way. The 19 songs here only scrape the tip of the Sparks canon, of course, with the inclusion of six from 2000's Balls album squeezing the greatest-hits quotient even harder. But they hit all the right spots regardless, while a lineup of just the two Maels and an excitable percussionist never lets the energy levels dip, even when the audience is still coming to terms with another unfamiliar number -- of course, most everyone was there for "This Town...," "Amateur Hour," "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth," and "Something for the Girl...," and they get them all, either punctuating the main set or breathlessly crunched into an encore passage that opens with the biggest thrill of the entire evening, a positively spectral, stunningly beautiful "Number One Song in Heaven." When Sparks played this same venue in 1994, they opened the show with that track and you could hear the goosebumps rise on the audience's flesh. A full hour into an exhilarating set, it's just as effective tonight. Aside from a 1975 German TV performance, there is previous little live Sparks material available on the open market, and vintage fans might regret that something so recent has made it out when so much "classic" material remains in the archive. Don't be deterred by the date. They may be older; they may have more material. But Ron and Russell Mael remain as spellbinding on-stage as they were in the past -- and John Lennon's shock remains as palpable as ever.
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