Russell and Ron Mael are the quintessential two-fisted auteurs of art rock. You say go one way, they choose their own path. As Sparks, Russell and Ron now celebrate 50 years of being pop pioneers — forging and changing course in unique and surprising ways while still managing to cultivate a tremendous following.
Sparks had a remarkably successful year in which they received recognition for their movie musical Annette and they gained enhanced public exposure from a very good and very thorough documentary about their band directed by Edgar Wright. On this highest of highs, Sparks descended upon the Lincoln Theatre in DC recently to share their idiosyncratic talents with a happily sold-out venue.
Longtime fans of Sparks knew the drill, and the brothers did not let them down on March 26. Russell romped, danced, sang, and twirled along the stage, while his older brother Ron sat sourfaced at the synthesizer. It’s an act of opposites, and it’s total stagecraft. As we know from the Edgar Wright documentary, Ron is in all earnestness an intellectual, studious, funny, loquacious man who seems totally approachable and personable outside of his scowling stage persona. The act likely has its foundations in the 1974 Sparks UK hit “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us,” which truly affixed them in the universe of unforgettable musical stars and left them hanging there. Part of that act was that Russell chirpily sang along to the lyrics while Ron looked like he wanted to kill him in the background — hence “ain’t big enough” for the two. But we will come back to this later.
Sparks began Saturday’s show with “So May We Start” from Annette, the very song that opens that movie. It’s a very clever tune that definitely serves as window dressing but has the hallmarks of clever Sparks wordplay and exciting Sparks keys. Once Sparks have drawn the audience into their world, the brothers soon highlighted Lil’ Beethoven with the first of four songs from that 2002 opus, which reignited the band creatively and critically for the new century. Across 23 songs in the set, Sparks drew one from most of their 24 studio albums and occasionally two — which is what you would want to see from a 50-year career retrospective show. Sparks performed three from their most recent, 2020’s A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip, but it was wholly appropriate that Lil’ Beethoven took top honors with four numbers.
Throughout the song, Russell warbled while looking at himself in a handheld mirror, which while comedic also underscored the hint of pathos in the refrain of “This time it’s gonna last.” Russell’s smart yellow and black outfit also suited the mood, and set him apart from the rest of the setting as he traveled across the stage.
Watch the official music video for “I Married Myself” by Sparks on YouTube:
Soon after, Sparks performed “Wonder Girl,” a song, as Russell explained, the band recorded under their first incarnation as Halfnelson. This was a rare and wonderful look at their development. While their brilliant quirks are quite visible in the song, they also are embracing their early love of The Who and The Kinks in the song’s mod rock melody. The song is a definite highlight of the show, particularly because they have scarcely ever performed it live in 50 years until 2022.
In the ’90s, Sparks came roaring back again with Music You Can Dance To, an album that intentionally thumbed its nose at pop success while then going on to achieve some pop success in Europe, where the Los Angeles Maels always have been more understood and thus more popular. At the halfway point of the show, Ron stood from his keyboard to deliver his remarkable spoken word “Shopping Mall of Love” from Music That You Can Dance To. (The band later played the title track as well.) The performance was one of several times that Ron broke out of his stoically silent keyboard player act, and he was terrific and wild and very compelling in a beat poet kind of way.
I was very pleased Sparks followed “Shopping Mall” with “Johnny Delusional,” recorded in 2015 with Scots Franz Ferdinand as supergroup FFS. Having long been a fan of Sparks and also an admirer of Franz Ferdinand since that group’s founding about 20 years ago, I was taken by surprise when they announced the supergroup project. Indeed, Sparks came to Lincoln Theatre with Franz Ferdinand in 2015 to perform in support of that self-titled record. Most of DC missed out on one of the most brilliant shows of that year, but they surely did not sleep on this magnificent show.
Watch the official music video for “Johnny Delusional” by Sparks on YouTube:
The crowd was on its feet several times throughout the night, but they got up to dance and stayed up to dance for the last leg of the show with “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way.'” Taken from their irreverent 1994 album, Gratuitous Sax & Senseless Violins, “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way'” also carries its share of pathos in the lyrics: “When do I get to feel like Sinatra felt?” In concert, Sparks played it with a surprising disco sheen, inspiring the audience to jump to their feet and dance in place. I was gobsmacked not only to see a DC audience turn out in these numbers for such unmatched tunes but also to see them “get it” so well.
The main set continued to compel giddy bopping and bobbing with “My Baby’s Taking Me Home,” “The Number One Song in Heaven,” and “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us.” Russell sang Lil’ Beethoven’s “My Baby” with poignancy and plaintiveness, and the audience swelled with a bit of emotion for a song that lyrically consists of “My baby’s taking me home” as 90 percent of its words. The number remains the top example of Sparks’ use of repetition as a lyrical device, and the ability of the same words to carry you over wildly diverse emotional terrain in the span of only a few minutes.
I could not say enough good things about “Number One Song in Heaven,” the 1979 juggernaut with which Sparks entered the ’80s. The formidable single, produced and co-written by Giorgio Moroder, served as the most effective showcase for Russell’s pleasing falsetto and simultaneously opened wide the door for Ron’s extraordinary synthesizer talents. Of course, it is a highly anticipated moment in a Sparks concert that at some point Ron dances his signature solo dance. And he broke out a brief interlude of Ron’s Shuffle, the very dance he developed in the “Cool Places” music video, near the end of “Number One Song in Heaven” to the utter delight of the audience.
Watch the official music video for “Number One Song in Heaven” by Sparks on YouTube:
It was naturally the right thing to do to close the main set with “This Town Aint’ Big Enough for Both of Us,” the glam rock hit that cemented the status of Sparks as “your favorite band’s favorite band.” Thanks to this recognition, I often identify a triumvirate of glam acts that served as a cradle for the English new wave sound — David Bowie, the Godfather of New Wave; Bryan Ferry, the Last Gentleman Rocker; and Sparks, the Dynamic Duo of Composition. Sparks’ infectious melodies, pervasive rhythms, and intellectually humorous turns of phrase left their marks on decades of music that was yet to come, and it was a most satisfying evening to celebrate half a century of music by Sparks in a full house. Baby has indeed taken us home.
Here are some photos of Sparks performing at the Lincoln Theatre on March 26, 2022. All pictures copyright and courtesy of Jason Nicholson.