Despite a late start, the Mael brothers delivered the beans in Beantown
We know Sparks dearly loves irony – it’s been their stock in trade for five-plus decades – but I don’t think it was really part of the plan.
The show was supposed to start at 8 p.m., maybe 8:10 as some of the setlist.fm entries had it. There were grumblings and rustlings in Boston’s packed Wilbur Theatre Saturday July 1 as the clock hit 8:30 and, then, some applause and relief, at 8:40 the introductory taped music started.
In the semi-darkness, Sparks’ four-piece backing band took the stage – guitarists Evan Weiss and Eli Pearl, bassist Max Whipple and longtime drummer Steven Nistor, followed by singer Russell Mael and keyboardist/lyricist/older brother Ron Mael. And Sparks began, as it did last tour with, “So May We Start.”
Yes, fellas you may. Finally. Start. As is pretty often the case, thoughts of the late start evaporated once the set got rolling, it was not even a minor blip as the group exited with the non-ironic, neigh-triumphant “All That,” a photo taken from the rear of the stage of the crowd with the Maels backs facing the audience, the message being that they were the hosts, but really, one with the crowd. The Maels probably talked for five minutes about how wonderful it had been to be there and while that may be rote rock talk, it truly seemed they meant it. The set clocked in at 1:35, standard Sparks time these days.
Now, a few existential Sparks questions raised, 2023, two years into their renaissance keyed by The Sparks Brother doc by Edgar Wright and Annette, the Leos Carax movie Ron and Russell wrote, the multiple Canne and Cesar Award winner.
- Why the hell is that girl crying in her latte? Ron wrote the song and singer Mael won’t tell you. For that matter, neither would silent Cate Blanchett in the video they did. She just is, dammit. And on it goes. Russell singing various iterations of the line, the building in intensity as if this question somehow is more and more pressing. (“The Girl Is Crying in Her Latte” was the second song of the night and the title of their latest album.)
- When, FFS, will the falsetto-inclinded Russell get to sing “My Way”? Well, maybe never. He’s been asking that question in the song since 1994. It’s a wry plea for Sinatra-esque fame, sung from the persona of someone whose best days are behind him. Is this Russ? A character? Both? And, again, irony alert, he may not get to sing “My Way,” but in their 70s the Maels star is clearly on the ascent, maybe never more than now. And they know it. He could sing “My Way.”
As they did on their last tour – A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip being the new album – they featured a chunk of songs from the current album, this being the aforementioned Latte – the title song, “Nothing Is Good as They Say It Is,” “We Go Dancing” and “Escalator.” “Escalator” was typical Sparks – Russ on an escalator going up, she on an escalator dance going down, exchanging fleeting glances but lost to each other for eternity, alas.
There was one more new one, “Gee, That Was Fun,” which came near the end, a rip through “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us,” that big, frenzied, boastful breakthrough hit in the U.K. back in 1974 and, via Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert in November of that year, my introduction to Sparks. And, gee, it was fun to hear it again. I’d have bottled them off stage if they hadn’t played it. (Not really, but y’know.)
Look, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I’d be in metaphorical heaven in Sparks had played the entirety of Kimono My House, Propaganda and Indiscreet back-to-back-to-back – the triple play LPs of ironic, Brit-flavored, wit-filled, politically incorrect and dazzling glam pop from 1974-75. Most Sparks fans have that favorite era – and for that matter, least favorite era – and this remains my top choice. That said, just like a 1975 Sparks song was titled “It Ain’t 1918,” it ain’t 1975 either. And thus, we only got “This Town” and the sweeping “Bon Voyage” from that time, where their glam pop had a nasty, agreeable comic edge to it. (I think it’s about Russell wanting to board Noah’s Ark with the two-by-two animals, but I’m not certain.)
But, heck, we got “Angst in My Pants,” “The Shopping Mall of Love” and “Balls,” all punny and clever-y and double entendre-y and we got lots of bright flashing lights flashing behind the band, which was mostly it from the stage. “Beaver O’Lindy” came from the pre-Sparks era when the brothers were called Halfnelson, and had yet to travel to England become Anglicized, and the Californians were probably even more of a puzzle to audiences back then. Were they prog? Were they pre-glam? Were they just weird? (They were mostly unplayed.)
Russell pranced, sang and cheer-led. Ron sat at his minimal keyboard, stoic as always except for the “Ron Dance” part of the show where, during “The No. 1 Song in Heaven” he comes out from behind the keyboard and does his little angular/spastic dance to everyone’s amusement. (Not a surprise anymore; it’s been a part of Sparks shtick for a while.)
The set closed with “My Baby’s Taking Me Home,” like “Latte,” a song with very few words beyond those in the title, but Russell working through all sorts of intonations and iterations in that though. Is home good? Bad? What will happen there? Is there any malevolence lurking out there? I couldn’t help but think of their old one, “How Are You Getting Home?” where Russell really wants to take this girl home – but maybe only half-way there – and I’d wager his intentions are not good.
That’s always been Sparks’ hidden ball trick. Whatever sounds bouncy and jolly, probably isn’t when you get right down to it, but whatever misbehavior is described or hinted at in song is also done up comic book style. I mean Trent Reznor really wanted to fuck you like an animal and Blackie Lawless really wanted to fuck like a beast – well, not anymore. The born-again W.A.S.P. singer renounced the song in 2009 and said he’d never play it again. Then, in 2022, he said he was reconsidering it if they rejiggered it. At any rate, Russell Mael does not and never did.
With “All That,” Sparks turned up the glee. Sure, Russell’s singing about things won and lost – “all the smiles and all the frowns, all the ups and all the downs” – but there’s little question that this is a song of joy. All the bad things are trumped by all the good things: “Someday we’d do useful things/We’d rise above, be kings and queens/But new cheap chairs will always be our thrones.” It’s almost like Sparks’ take on Human League’s “The Things That Dreams Are Made Of.” It’s nostalgic and forward-thinking at the same time and leaves you, the listener with a big smile on your face, subtly enthralled. These guys, they’re going to make it after all. And maybe we will, too.
VIDEO: Sparks “Escalator”