The Brothers Mael continue their late career victory lap at the Shubert Theatre
After years of rock fans – even Sparks fans – going, “Sparks?! They still exist?” – the world (or at least a certain slice of it) turned on its axis in 2020-2021.
First, there was the album, A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, then Edgar Wright’s extended mix of a doc called The Sparks Brothers and then came Annette, which was Sparks – singer Russell Mael and older brother songwriter-keyboardist Ron – writing the story and the music for the art-house film starring Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard.
Talk about shooting out Sparks! Fans came out of closet , out of the woodwork, mostly egged on by the multiple famous rockers who paid tribute to Sparks in the doc. That would include early producer / discoverer / believer Todd Rundgren, Franz Ferdinand’s Alex Kapranos, (whose band record FFS with Sparks in 2015), Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Flea, Erasure’s Andy Bell and Vince Clarke, Nick Rhodes and John Taylor of Duran Duran, Stephen Morris and Gillian Gilbert of New Order, Beck, Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols (he saw them as a kid in London and recalls Russell as the “cutie pie” all the girls were screaming for) and Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s, who was briefly a paramour of Russell’s and the co-lead singer on Sparks “Cool Places?”
Then, the improbable victory lap of a tour which started in the brothers’ home base of Los Angeles and wound its way to the Shubert Theatre in Boston March 30.
It started with grandiosity and cheekiness – “So May We Start” (from Annette) which of course made you smile and “OK, fellas let’s go!” (Sweet reference, “Ballroom Blitz”.) It then moved into “Angst in My Pants,” where we first delighted on Ron’s love of puns and plays on words and saw Russell in his baggy yellow pants plant his legs wide and sing about all that damned angst down below. If that wasn’t horny enough for you, “Tips for Teen” followed – a bouncy, chirpy number where Russell foreshadows some of the bumps of teendom for girls (burgeoning C cups and D cups) and warns of calorie overload. The girl wants an ice cream or a cheeseburger? Russell’s very strong suggestion is, don’t do it: “Give it to me!”
Are we done with hormones and sex? We are not! Next, Russell found himself, in the midst of layers of lush string-synths, going “Under the Table with Her,” where “dinner for 12 is now dinner for 10.” Now, the character singing might be a dog scarfing scraps with a doggie girl pal. But, y’know, was the Stooges “I Wanna Be Your Dog” really about a dog?
If this seems dizzying to read, it was also dizzying – and delightful – to hear spun out by the ever-cavorting and oft-operatic Russell, the ever-stoic/severe Ron and the crack backing band of four (down one because guitarist Evan Weiss had tested positive for Covid). As it was, guitarist Eli Pearl, bassist Max Whipple, longtime drummer Steve Nistor and another keyboardist -important! – Taylor Parkford, handled the hairpin turns with aplomb. They were all pretty much in a line, wearing black, in the back – anonymous players until Russell introduced them with much pomp and gratitude at the end of the regular set.
Often, while the band is rocking, Ron bangs out these staccato riffs on the piano, two hands working in unison, face set, sometimes placidly, sometimes grimly fiendish. It’s where Ron’s inherent love of keyboard minimalism joyously clashes with the others giving lift and heft to the melodies.
Talent is An Asset and Sparks surely have it – but, dammit, they didn’t play that song! One of the best from that mid- ‘70s glam pop era that produced Kimono My House, Propaganda and Indiscreet. This is where I kvetch about the set list (and I guess I just have) but have to step back and realize they’re plucking 24 from 1.5 million songs (roughly) encompassing a 50-year timespan. And you can’t always get what you want.
What Sparks has long done is mask the subversiveness with the giddy and that was on full display in Boston. Ron is one ridiculously clever bastard and he is very happy digging deep into irony, cynicism and double entendres with Russell making it all sound sweet, innocent and upbeat. I love love love “Edith Piaf (Sang It Better Than Me,” where the first line is, “It’s a heart-warming song for the easily moved.” That is, perhaps, Ron’s little jab at the Celine Dion/Diane Warren-esque schlock that passes for “emotional” and is overwhelmingly popular in this overwrought world of octave leaping power ballads and prime time TV-driven singing contests.
Are Sparks ever annoying? Sure, they are! I always thought their first ever song, “Wonder Girl,” played about a third of the way through in Boston, was a shrill and repetitious bore and still do. “Lawnmower” is fascinating because it is relentlessly grating – yet it sucks you in. Annoyance turned to glee as the music swelled and it was at this point where I had images of Sister Sledge’s “Lost in Music” dancing in my head though it might have been the Fall’s version.
Upping the annoying/alluring ante was “My Baby’s Taking Me Home,” where Russell sang the title over and over and over and over, modulating ever so slightly to shift the tone from welcoming to menacing and back again, until it finally erupted with a verse where there was morning rain, a clearing, a scenario where streets are glistening and named after New England trees. A rainbow forms and while both Russell and his un-named partner are color blind, they “can hear the sound that others can’t can’t hear… the sound of a chorus singing.”
Then, he’s back into that “My baby’s taking me home” refrain, but it does seem like any latent lurking malevolence has been vanquished. (Why do I think malevolence was somewhere in the mix? Sparks once did a song, not played this night, called “How Are You Getting Home?,” which is basically a super-rousing, herky-jerky pep song about kidnapping this girl from a party and taking her half-way home. You can guess the rest.)
Let’s consider “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth.” It was a mid-tempo ballad-y pro-environmental song written way before Climate Change became the bell that tolls for us us all and played near the end of the set. It’s good advice, not without an inherent threat. Heed the warning in the title and chorus! Because if you don’t you will find “towns are hurled from A to B/By arms that looked so smooth to me.”
The thing about Sparks is they’ve remained doggedly true to their eclectic aesthetic as they’ve jumped from genre to genre, employing Russell’s falsetto vocals at most every turn. Would there have been a Queen if there were no Sparks? Up for debate, but we can be damn sure Freddie Mercury listened to some Russell Mael.
Throughout their career, Sparks risked losing fans with every turn – and they did me, for a spell – and then those fans might come creeping back in at a later juncture. I admit, when they went electro-disco with Giorgio Moroder on “Number One Song in Heaven” I was not welcoming of this shift. Humbug, I thought back in 1979. (Remember the punk-disco wars?) Turns out, they were ahead of the Depeche Mode electro curve, and it truly is a great, propulsive, surging song and it was one of the show’s highlights, coming right before “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us.”
Ah yes, “This Town.” The song was a huge hit in the UK, and marked the first of Sparks’ reinventions, even as they changed their name from Halfnelson, giving the world the illusion that this L.A. duo (with a new young Brit band behind it) was English-born and bred, part of the androgynous glam scene that gave us T.Rex, Slade, Sweet, Gary Glitter, David Essex, David Bowie and the rest. It was clearly cut from that sense and sensibility, and the Maels had moved to London to cultivate it. That song was – and remains – brilliant, three minutes of overheated drama and hectic macho boasts from the upper ranges of Russell’s vocal cords. Twist and turns galore. As breathless as Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Breathless.”
That was about it. We got “Suburban Homeboy” as the first encore and then “All That,” which is kind of like their “My Way.” Of course, it came not long after they’d done “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way.’” “All That” is about winning and losing, but ultimately comes off as chest-thumpingly triumphant: “You ignore my gaping flaws and I see you and I’m in awe.”
Leave it to Sparks, the most ironic of bands, to close with what has to be their most directly emotional and least ironic of songs. Which is in itself, of course, ironic. Are we meta enough now?
They took their final bows, Russell talked about how “amazing” it all was – this trip, this tour, this gig (I presume) – using that word, “amazing” repeatedly. At first, I thought he sounded like a gushing, adjective-stunted teenage girl and then I thought: Wait, repetition! It’s what Sparks does. It’s what Sparks does. It’s what Sparks does.
VIDEO: Fan footage of Sparks performing “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” at the Shubert Theatre in Boston