As Edgar Wright’s exhilarating documentary The Sparks Brothers illustrated so well, Ron and Russell Mael, aka Sparks, are “your favorite band’s favorite band” for good reason. The duo have been making delightfully dramatic, experimental yet accessible art rock for over 50 years. Whether they were prancing on Top of The Pops in the ‘70s or blasting from transistor radios on KROQ 106.7 FM in the ‘80s, they never really “fit in” with what was popular at the time.
But last night (February 7th) at Los Angeles’s Walt Disney Concert Hall, illuminated by an array of multi-hued stage lights and backed by a solid five-piece band, they were a splendid fit.
The Hall is home to the LA Philharmonic, and its grand aesthetic and layout (inside and out), not to mention its unmatched acoustics, make seeing orchestral presentations there a truly exquisite experience. Sparks, who hadn’t played a show in their hometown since last summer (when COVID-19 seemed to be subsiding) at another landmark, Hollywood Forever Cemetery, lived up to the even more majestic surroundings last night, serving a performance that was sonically theatrical in mood and pitch-perfect in execution.
The Maels’ refusal to be pigeon-holed by pop music standards kept them from reaching the level of mainstream success that so many of the artists they inspired did, but the fearless fellows never really seemed to mind. The band leaned into their weirdness as they got older, ultimately enjoying their biggest success with their 11th album, the infectious 1982 release, Angst in my Pants, soon followed by another hit, the bubbly Jane Wiedlin duet, “Cool Places.” They didn’t “go to” the latter, but the title track of Angst was their third number on Monday night, and it brought the energy of the crowd way up, especially for what’s typically a reserved setting.
Speaking of pants, lead singer Russell wore bright chartreuse trousers, popping amidst the rest of the band and his brother, all clad in black. It deserves noting that quirky dress-up was always an important element for this group, from their glittering glam days to their spiffy suits and Ron’s dabbles with drag.
While Russell became a teen idol, holding his own alongside the Durans and Depeches of the new wave era, Ron became an enigma, and ultimately an icon, thanks to his styling choices, tiny mustaches and sinister/silly gazes in videos and TV stints. He doesn’t mug it up as much anymore, but his presence behind the keyboards, front stage alongside his sibling, continues to provide something unique for the live rock experience, even if it’s more subdued than we remember.
While Russell, now 73, was animated, crooning heavy and bouncing about, Ron, at 76, seemed small, still and a bit frail at times. Even so, the pair’s chemistry and performance of material old and new, was full of life, flowing flawlessly throughout the 25-song set list.
From nostalgic gems like “Wonder Girl,” “Under the Table With Her,” and “Tips for Teens” to Angst’s catchiest song, “I Predict,” to later era ditties such as “I Married Myself” and “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me),” the Maels provided a collage of their long and unconventional career with songs that showcased their fantastical lyricism and signature genre-blends of bubblegum, electro and pop.