Landing a first headlining slot at the Hollywood Bowl is a cherished milestone for any major musical acts who claim Los Angeles as their home base. It can even mean a little more, probably, when it’s a sibling jubilee. Last summer, it was a homecoming-queens coronation for the Haim sisters, who got the honor a mere nine years into their professional career. This year, the Bowl debut honor for cherished locals goes to the Mael brothers, who only had to wait 52 years for their own crowning gig. What’s five decades among friends and family … everybody loves a slow build, right?
The brothers would never be mistaken for rank sentimentalists, but Sunday night’s Sparks show might have brought a hint of a tear to a waggish eye, knowing it was a boyhood dream. Or at least when Ron and Russell Mael’s mom brought them to see the Beatles at the venue in 1965, it was “probably some good education,” as Russell allowed near the beginning of the show. At the Bowl Sunday, Mom was likely not around, but they did have the closest thing they’ve probably had lately to a surrogate parent, director Edgar Wright, whose consciousness-raising documentary “The Sparks Brothers” can be loosely said to have kind of nurtured them across a sort of finish line. (The show-closing photo seen above, plus some video snippets below, are courtesy of Wright’s backstage camera.)
But enough of what the show meant to them. What did it mean to us, the L.A. Sparks fan, wanting some music that you can dance to as well as a valedictory moment? The great irony of any Sparks show in a halfway-modern era is that it’s going to be both fulfilling and frustrating — the former because of the tremendous catalog they have to draw upon, and the latter because of, you know, the tremendous catalog they have to draw upon. The 23-song setlist they’ve mostly stuck to for the entire international tour that is nearing its close can logically average just slightly less than one song from each of the 25 albums they’ve put out since their 1971 debut, and with five numbers being drawn from their excellent latest effort, “The Girl Is Crying in Her Latte,” that means not a lot of “Propaganda” to go around. The entire KROQ early-’80s era that made them icons for a certain subset of local fandom was represented via a single song, “Angst in My Pants,” this time around.
Yet the “I Predict” fan’s loss was the gain of even more O.G. fans who were hearing “Beaver O’Lindy,” from their second album, “A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing,” played on tour for the first time since… well, since never, since this oddity didn’t even rate any performances in 1972. (Dear reader, my heart leaped.) The fact is, compared to the setlist from the group’s last pre-pandemic tour, only a scant five songs overlapped, a refreshing reminder that, in their 70s, the Maels are committed to always keeping it fresh. Other than, like, Bob Dylan, how many rock artists of a five-decade-plus pedigree are doing setlists that seem to have mostly been drawn out of a hat on tour’s eve — and making that sequencing feel at least as fun and vital for the audience as if they’d gone straight down a list of their Spotify Most Popular? Birds of a feather, they and Bob are.
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There was little need for a bathroom break as the Maels did make those five dips into “The Girl Is Crying in Her Latte,” which benefitted from the co-sign of guest dancer Cate Blanchett for the title track’s video. More significantly than that PR bonus, it happens to be a really good Sparks album… one you could lend a curious young friend who’d just seen Wright’s doc and have ’em feel they get what the whole enterprise is about, without even having to offer up “Kimono My House” as an aperitif first. Beyond the electro-pop of that title number, which harks back to their most synth-happy days around the turn of the century, the most sure-fire new number is “Nothing Is as Good as You Say It Is,” which Russell described as being about a 22-hour-old infant’s instantaneous world-weariness and desire to return to the womb. The song itself is kind of a Sparks fountain of youth, recalling their most guitar-driven days of the early and mid-’70s. Probably the oddest choice to include in the live set was “We Go Dancing,” a fairly sinister song about Kim Jong Un deciding to make raves compulsory in North Korea. It sounds the most like an outtake from their “Annette” cinematic song score, even though the movie songs were not a barrel of laughs, whereas “We Go Dances” is, in its oddball “‘They Shoot Horses, Don’t They’ goes to a fascist rave” fashion.
If the setlists have a huge turnover from tour to tour, almost nothing has changed about the basic Sparks live drill. Yes, most — not all — of the material is funny, albeit almost never LOL-funny. The casual listener might not even notice wit was afoot if if weren’t for how much the bros resemble one of the classic comedy teams, in just how severely they divide up complementary personas. Russell Mael is the flamboyant, happy-go-lucky straight man, giving voice to the wry lyrics of the utterly stoic keyboard player Ron Mael. It’s kind of like “Cyrano de Bergerac,” as if Cyrano forgot he’s supposed to be writing for a matinee idol instead of out of his own insecurity or peculiar sense of observation. Russell delivers these strange short stories with all the aplomb of the world’s most confidant rocker. Ron draws attention mostly by being so overtly a non-attention-seeker that he got a big laugh from the audience merely by being seen in a severely stoic closeup during one of the night’s otherwise high-energy numbers, “Music That You Can Dance To.”
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But Ron’s role is also to kind of break character a couple of times a night, in (with apologies to Peter Frampton) Nebbish Comes Alive moments in the show. There was an uncharacteristic rap on the part of a suddenly standing Ron’s part during “Shopping Mall of Love,” followed by his long-standing dance routine in an interlude of “Number One in Heaven,” a piece of deliberately creaky choreography that doesn’t come off as a day over vaudevillian. In these very isolated Ron outbursts, the exception proves a rule that he’s the great, comic Silent Partner of rock ‘n’ roll, a medium that doesn’t have a lot of other contenders for that exact title. They almost don’t need to write any comedy, when there’s enough of it just in the visual joke that the brothers couldn’t possibly be related.
Not to neglect the four-man crack band that stayed glued to a slightly raised platform in the background, on possibly the cleanest-looking, sparest set the Bowl might have ever hosted for a rock show. There was no undue emphasis on Sparks as a band — no pretense that any of the instrumental passages merited having someone step up to share forced chemistry with the Maels — although the spotlight would shine on the shredding during an exciting passage of a “Bon Voyage” or “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us.” It’s not ego but design sense that keeps the players in the background; Russell cheerfully introduced all the players by show’s end.
Few came to the Bowl to parse lyrics, probably, but certain lines stick out nonetheless: “The authors are here and they’re a little vain,” in the opening “So May We Start,” from “Annette,” provided cause to pause so Ron could strike a brow-stroking pose. “A rainbow forms, but we are colorblind” — naturally, a prompt to light up the Bowl’s bandshell in splendid full color. “They say my voice is going to change” — well, is there any Sparks line funnier than that? The fan’s eternal hope is that Russell never loses his falsetto. No sign of that yet, that’s for certain.
Most acts of this great a vintage would have show openers and closers long locked in place by now, and “This Town…” is always going to feel roughly penultimate. But one of the benefits of Sparks’ recent output is that they’ve written themselves natural intro and outro material — with the Oscar-shortlisted “So May We Start?” looking like a solid kick-off song for the rest of their career. And then, for any extended finale, they have three numbers that feel like the right kind of contemplation to send an audience out on. “Gee That Was Fun” is the most sadly hilarious of these farewell songs, with the singer’s admission that “I’d have been less on my phone / I’d have been more in the zone / If I had known” the end was near. (Of a relationship? Of a concert? Of life?) “All That” is the completely serious counterpart to that, a final number that testifies to love, friendship or possibly fandom, as surely and (surprise) earnestly as Taylor Swift’s “Long Live.” In the middle here is “My Baby’s Taking Me Home,” a number that consists almost entirely of the title phrase being repeated dozens of times. Its minimalism might have been irritating the first few times anyone heard it, but over time, as the Sparks brothers clearly intend, it’s come to feel like a soothing bedtime mantra.
It’s weird that, over more than 50 years, Sparks hasn’t been more influential as a unit than it has. Actually, plenty of bands will cite them — but who has really striven to do the kind of seriocomic observations that Ron writes so effortlessly? Not many, although you could cite bands that have an essentially witty nature, like the Mountain Goats, or… hey, look, who’s this highly apropos Hollywood Bowl opening act: They Might Be Giants. But TMBG lean more toward utter absurdism than Sparks does, with the Maels’ feet planted firmly in the melancholy soil of gallows humor. Maybe it’s OK that not many other songwriters or bands tried to “be” Sparks; you’ve either got the comic writing gene or you don’t, and most people that go into rock ‘n’ roll aren’t doing it for the smirks. Anyhow, the idea that Ron in particular has not ceased to be amused by life’s essential anecdotalism is part of the secret handshake that Sparks fans share — the knowledge that we have to laugh (but almost never, ever LOL) to keep from crying in your Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf.
Cockiness is not naturally part of the Sparks ethos, unless you count Russell’s cocksure skipping and dancing. But when they came up with a cheeky song called “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’” all the way back in 1994, I wasn’t entirely sure they were kidding about aspiring to a heightened Frank Sinatra level of valedictory pride, or entitlement. They’d certainly earned it even by then. The duo performed it again Sunday night (it’s one of the few true staples of their show), and now, seeing the embrace of the homecoming, it felt that rhetorical question had an answer. July 16, 2023 was when they got to sing “My Way” — figuratively, mind you — by commanding the marquee on the most iconic show-biz location of them all.
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