SOUNDS OF THE CITY

Sparks Lit Up Town Hall

At the half-century mark, the Mael brothers’ art rock still rocks

by

••• SOTC: Sparks at Town Hall, March  28, 2022 •••

Kimonos, berets, and French people? Check.  

A $26 medium-size sippy cup of Cab Sauv? Check. 

Groups of middle-aged men nerding out over merch, next to women of all ages with crayon-bright hair and vintage clothing chattering excitedly? Check.

Definitely a Sparks show, definitely midtown Manhattan.

Are they new wave, no wave, operatic, old-timey, futuristic, surreal? Yes. In 50 years of band-dom, Sparks—singer Russell Mael and keyboardist-composer brother Ron Mael, along with various bandmates—have defied categorization, and perhaps commensurately seen their popularity wax and wane. 

But, if you’ve been paying attention, the past few years have seen an upswing for the beloved septuagenarians. It might have been the 2015 album FFS that began the current boost. A collaboration wrought by mutual fandom between Scottish rock band Franz Ferdinand and Sparks, in typical Sparks fashion they couldn’t resist a song called “Collaborations Don’t Work.” 

Au contraire

By the time Sparks’ brilliant 2017 album, Hippopotamus, was released, Adam Driver was already attached to a movie the Mael brothers had written, to be helmed by French director Leos Carax. Cut to the Cannes Film Festival in 2021, and the Maels are beaming on the red carpet with Driver and Marion Cotillard, who starred in their surreal musical, Annette

As The New York Times said of the film, “It’s a highly cerebral, formally complex film about unbridled emotion.…  A fantastical film that attacks some of our culture’s most cherished fantasies. Utterly unreal and completely truthful.”

That pretty much sums up Sparks as well. The descriptors are myriad: Enigmatic, mythical, worshipped, literary. The band has released 21 albums since their 1971 debut (under the band name Halfnelson). And, as noted in the entertaining 2021 documentary The Sparks Brothers, they played every single one of those LPs live, in order, one per night, under the billing “The Sparks Spectacular,” in London in May and June 2008.

At the Town Hall show, the first of two nights, Russell, 73, and Ron, 76, were understandably not quite so ambitious, but the 20-plus songs were delivered with the verve and freshness of a band at the top of their game. Russell’s often operatic voice and sometime-use of falsetto are powerful and spot-on amidst his energetic retro dance moves—think Molly Ringwald’s new wave stair-dance in Breakfast Club. 

A few radio and fan favorites weren’t on the set list: 1982’s “Monster of Love” and the 1983 duet with Go-Go’s guitarist Jane Wiedlin, “Cool Places.” But the set was stellar, kicking off with the song that opens Annette, “So May We Start,” before moving into fan favorites including the chant-along “I Predict” and the bouncily beloved “Tips for Teens.” 

Non-fans may find the band too, well, highfalutin, more from the head than the groin. And that’s not false, with lyrics that rhyme “Andover” and “Land Rover.” Ron’s mind is a weird wonderful one, as such delightfully tortured takes on self including “Angst in My Pants,” “I Married Myself,” “Stravinsky’s Only Hit,” and “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)” prove.

But they’re never too clever for their own good, though a few songs came across as trying too hard lyrically, notably “Rhythm Thief” (“Oh no, where did the groove go?”) and “Suburban Homeboy.” 

Sparks’ powerful musicality, with elements of art rock, can ring quasi-classical, and the well-done heaviness in songs like “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us” can be as quirky as the lyrical concepts. But saving them from tweeness is an always underlying poignancy, driven home by the auteur’s persona, which seems barely calculated but nonetheless delightfully irregular.  

Ron’s intentionally inscrutable demeanor is beloved … in fact, upon being introduced onstage (unnecessary, of course), the keyboardist with the high-belted pants and what has been described by fans as a Hitler meets Charlie Chaplin look, inspired a genuine—and several waves long—standing ovation. The show was one of those rare, hard-to-pinpoint but unusually special performances. The love flowing toward the stage—even though the audience was mostly seated for the first part of the show—was rapt and adoring. 

The final song, the anthemic, rousing-yet-melancholy (and surprisingly straight-ahead) “All That,” with lyrics “All that we’ve done / We’ve lost, we’ve won / All that, all that and more,” provided a perfect capstone for the evening. At the show’s close, Russell acknowledged the specialness of the night and how appreciative they were, humbly thanking the New York audience several times as waves of warmth radiated toward the stage. Both brothers appeared genuinely grateful. It was a palpable thing. 

Of course, nearly all artists thank their audience, but Ron sensed, as did the crowd, that there was something in the air—despite every attendee remaining diligently masked. One fan described the gig as having “a particularly remarkable vibe.” Call it the Covid effect, but the fans-to-Sparks appreciation was one of the most authentic and impassioned reactions I’ve witnessed across decades of concertgoing.   ❖

Highlights