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Sparks At The Hollywood Bowl, Sunday July 16th 2023

Sparks
Sparks at the Hollywood Bowl

Last night was a moving homecoming show for the two Sparks brothers: the Hollywood Bowl was the last stop of their North American tour leg, which started in June in New York, and Russell and Ron Mael could not believe the view. A forest of iPhone flashlights ignited the bowl during the last songs, and it was a truly beautiful sight. Filmmaker Edgar Wright, who made a loving documentary, “The Spark Brothers” in 2021, came on stage to immortalize the moment with his camera.

My exposure to Sparks has been minimal, despite a short show at Hollywood Forever before the projection of Leos Carax’s musical “Annette,” in 2021. Since, Sparks won a Cannes Soundtrack Award for Best Composer, a César Award (the French equivalent of the Oscars) for Best Original Music, a Lumières Award for Best Music, an NME Award for Best Music Film, and if their song “So May We Start” was shortlisted for the Academy Award for Best Original Song, it was not nominated. This says everything about the Mael brothers’ international success which has always been big(ger) overseas.

Sparks’s current tour, in support of their last album “The Girl Is Crying in Her Latte,” couldn’t have ended better: A triumphant concert in their hometown, at the iconic venue where they saw the Beatles 50 years ago. “Mom, we made it!” they wrote on their Instagram page this morning with a photo of the Hollywood Bowl, a funny touch reflecting their legendary humor, while Ron acknowledged their humble beginning at the Whisky A Go Go decades ago, at the end of the concert.

They Might Be Giants opened the night with a disheveled fun set filled with erratic dance moves, exuberant instrumental solos (their numerous instruments included an accordion and a horn section), and plenty of humor. After the first verse of the first song, John Flansburgh screamed, “Okay that’s it for us.” They were in fact thrilled to be opening for Sparks at the Bowl and played with an over-the-top enthusiasm. “From our Grammy-losing album, a pride tradition… since we are between industry insiders,” said Flansburgh before “Synopsis for Latecomers.” If some of their catchy songs sounded like the most child-oriented pop songs you would imagine for Saturday morning cartoons, their mix also ventured into a song encapsulating “every Alabama song into one” (“Number Three”), followed by layered exotic compositions with a brassy and fun dimension provided by the horn section, then more cacophonic-jazzy experimentations (“Spy”) and even a famous cover by a band of the ‘50s, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” They were simply a lot of fun and it was not difficult to understand why they have been picked for such a night.

Setlist: Damn Good Times, Synopsis for Latecomers, Birdhouse in Your Soul, Particle Man, Moonbeam Rays, Ana Ng, Number Three, Brontosaurus, Spy, Istanbul (Not Constantinople) (The Four Lads cover), Doctor Worm, When Will You Die, Don’t Let’s Start

The Mael brothers were in great spirits, but, as usual, their personalities could not have been more contrasting. Russell (74), who was wearing a flamboyant red and black suit, bounced and danced around the stage with his usual communicative showman excitement, while Ron (77) only abandoned his stiff posture at his keyboard for a few minutes, getting center stage twice. The first time during a completely dispassionate recitation of his part (“I found my thrill in Beverly Hills”) during “Shopping Mall of Love,” and a second time during the song “The Number One Song in Heaven” when he delivered his funny running-on-the-spot dance number that never failed to bring the crowd on their feet. Like a classic comedy duo, Ron’s legendary deadpan demeanor has always played in full contrast with Russell’s playful and exuberant personality, and, last night, the large stage of the Bowl polarized the difference with Russell running from left to right around a motionless Ron. The show didn’t need any more artifice, and this is why they are still funny and very entertaining. At the top of all that running, Russell demonstrated he could still hit the high notes and his falsetto sounded intact during the most operatic octaves. Unsurprisingly, he also did almost all the talking of the night.

The duo started the show with the “Annette” song, “So May We Start,” a completely inevitable show-opener, and a cinematic invitation to the night. “So Hollywood Bowl, may we start?” told Russell. As expected, the new album was well represented in the set with a few new songs sprinkled throughout the setlist: the electric and anxious “The Girl Is Crying in Her Latte” immediately followed – unfortunately, Cate Blanchett was apparently not in town. The rest of the night had the impossible task to span their 52-year-old career and 26 albums with the funny “Angst in my Pants,” the eccentric “Beaver O’Lindy” (from their second album “A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing”), the glam-y and catchy “When I’m With You” (from “Terminal Jive”).

“Thank you! What an absolute thrill to be here tonight!” said Russell after a few songs. “The whole town and our mom were at this very venue in 1964 when The Beatles played. And I think that was some good education from our mom and it led to this and us being on this stage right now so Thank you!”

Despite the constant presence of Ron’s keyboard, their musical style has always escaped conventional classification. They embellish pop music with operatic vocals, synth-heavy melodies, and labyrinthic dancefloors, while the songs cover all kinds of themes of social satires. The upbeat “Nothing Is as Good as They Say It Is” was the perfect representation of their unique sense of humor and was once again introduced by Russell with: “Thank you, we have a brand-new album that just came out a few weeks ago and the album is called “The Girl is Crying in her Latte.” This next song is from that album, and it is from the perspective of a 22-hour-old child, a boy, and he feels that, after 22 hours, he’s seen enough and wants to go back to where he came from. The song is called ‘Nothing Is as Good as They Say It Is.’”

The electro-techno pop of “Balls” could have come from a lost album of Devo, the funny spoken words of “Shopping Mall of Love” sounded avant-garde art-pop, and “We Go Dancing” – that Russell introduced with a joke about Kim Jong Un becoming the biggest DJ in North Korea, “so when he says dance it’s not a suggestion it’s an order”— sounded like a mini-Broadway show.

As this is the case for any band, there is that song that everyone knows and waits to hear, and “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us,” Sparks’ 1974 glam rock hit, will always be the most climatic moment of any of their shows. However, they played it just after the Giorgio-Moroder-produced “The Number One Song in Heaven,” another big crowd-pleaser and both songs were received with the same big enthusiasm. The festive and joyful “Music That You Can Dance To” triggered a giant clap-along. Ending the concert (just before the encore) with “Gee, That Was Fun” (from the new album) was the definite proof that each Sparks’ song has a perfect purpose in life, but they closed the night with “All That” and an emotional Russell told us that the song “encapsulates how we feel emotionally about an evening like tonight; that’s so amazing the bond that we have with all of you guys is something extra special.”

The entire concert looked like a victorious culmination of the long career of these two brothers who have managed to keep their idiosyncratic style and creativity intact. Even during the most rocking moments, there always was an authentic emotional undertow and a reach for something else. Even with the silliest songs (“My Baby’s Taking Me Home” is the only line in the song besides a spoken interlude), they managed to keep us interested and emotionally involved. Their spark of genius continues to inspire many bands and artists — Joy Division, New Order, Depeche Mode, The Smiths, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Faith No More, Sonic Youth, Björk, Beck, Steve Jones, Franz Ferdinand, Todd Rundgren, Red Hot Chili Peppers to only cite a few have all claims their admiration and love for Sparks — and this has made people declare that Sparks is probably your favorite band’s favorite band. However, they were everyone’s favorite duo last night.

Setlist
So May We Start
The Girl Is Crying in Her Latte
Angst in My Pants
Beaver O’Lindy
When I’m With You
Nothing Is As Good As They Say It Is
It Doesn’t Have to Be That Way
Balls
Shopping Mall of Love
We Go Dancing
Bon Voyage
Music That You Can Dance To
When Do I Get to Sing “My Way”
The Number One Song in Heaven
This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us
Gee, That Was Fun

Encore:
My Baby’s Taking Me Home
All That

 

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