Review of their gig in the Olympia Theatre, Dublin, 25 November 2002
As they approached the end of a quick-fire European tour it was a blustery winter night that greeted (some members of) Sparklehorse - one of our times' great bands - to Dublin.
The pa(i)red-down Sparklehorse line-up was preceded by fellow American 'lo-fi' band Norfolk & Western, who provided suitably intimate support. Their songs seemed to get stronger in turn, as the hushed vocals and pristine arrangements, along with sporadic blasts of distorted guitar, increasingly impressed. Distinctive banjo-playing augmented many tracks, while most striking was the drummer, whose imaginative approach was a delight.
When Sparklehorse's Mark Linkous appeared with his drummer (along with a shy colleague, torch-in-mouth, hidden in the drapes providing backing sounds), the modest attendance was treated to an instant barrage of vivacious guitar and hyper-percussion, which bode well for what was to follow. Older favourite "Hundreds of Sparrows" was a fragile triumph, accompanied by sparse yet involving electronic shapes which enveloped the song with an eerie presence. Another treasure "Saturday", surely one of the most unassuming, humble brushstrokes of a song you could ever hear, resonated thrillingly, with every note caressed to the air with a simple expressive grace.
Ultimately however, such highlights were infrequent, and it was when the makeshift line-up tried to conjure the majesty of tracks from their most recent album "It's A Wonderful Life" (perhaps the very best record of recent years) that a certain hollow feeling became manifest. "Gold Day" in particular disappointed. A reticently momentous joy on record, but here soiled by uninspired vocals and cumbersome guitar from Linkous. Similarly "Sea of Teeth" was a shadow of what it should have been, with the sumptuous piano of the album track sorely missed in the live arrangement. "More Yellow Birds" was the best performed of the "...Wonderful Life" songs, aided by some members of Norfolk & Western. Nevertheless, the vocals again lacked the poignancy and expression of the album version and the attempt to reproduce the heart-wrenching strings using guitars failed quite flagrantly.
But to be fair, even with a full line-up, Sparklehorse would have strained to replicate or reinterpret the perfection of this album. With only two musicians visibly present, the impossibility of the task was all too obvious. On a positive note, the new songs played served as a skeletal yet enticing glimpse of what we can expect on the next record, and presumably these songs will also reach higher planes when produced in the studio. Essentially though, the night carried a stench of anti-climax. From the relatively low turn-out - and an ensuing lack of atmosphere - to the bland video art screened as a backdrop and - most of all - the seemingly unenthused delivery of the performance, it was not the memorable occasion that was expected. Plus it was all over by 10.30 (including one encore of one song)!
It's natural to expect too much when a favourite band rolls into town, but surely we could have looked forward to more than this.
Check out a review of a 1999 Sparklehorse concert in Dublin.