LIVE CONCERT REVIEW:
Sparks Live in Seattle (April 22, 2013)
So, this started sometime in March when I was talking to someone on Facebook who mentioned something about seeing Robyn Hitchcock perform in her town. I then wondered if Hitchcock planned to stop by Seattle anytime. So, I visited his website and saw that he was going to be at The Neptune on June 4. That was great! I love going to The Neptune! So I decided to get a ticket for this. I went on its website, clicked onto the event calendar page, and started flipping past the months--March, April, Ma--
And then I gasped. This was a literal gasp. You know. I opened my mouth, my lungs sucked in a whole bunch of air. It made a lot of noise.
Were my eyes deceiving me? I thought I had seen the word "Sparks" printed somewhere in April. The image of the Mael Brothers immediately popped in my mind. If you're some kind of non-music-nerd who has never heard of Sparks, here is who they are: a pop duo, brothers, who have been writing music and performing since the early '70s. Tons and tons and tons of great pop songs. I mean, these songs are golden. Catchy tunes coupled with some of the cleverest lyrics ever conceived in pop history. These are songs that have been stuck in my mind at various stages over the last eight years or so. Which might not seem like a long time to some people, but remember that I am in my early 30s.
I was fully aware that Sparks tour Europe extensively but rarely do they ever tour stateside. The reason, I assume, is simply because they had trouble gaining an audience. I'd actually entertained the idea of making a trip to go to Europe specifically see them perform. (Now, keep in mind, I entertain many thoughts...)
Anyway, I clicked back to April to see whether that Sparks announcement was real or my brain was playing a nasty trick on me. But alas! It was genuine. There, it said "Sparks." April 22. Earth Day!
However, still being cynical in nature, my next split-second thought was to make sure that this would be the real Sparks. You know, the Mael Brothers. You never know if there is some boring, start-up rap act going by that name, or something. Sparks is a fairly common word.
But my mind didn't have to fester with such thoughts for long. I clicked on the link for the event and saw, indeed, a picture of the familiar pop duo who I'd so longed to see. Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh myyyyyyyyyyyy...
So I bought the ticket in a frenzy. I didn't figure those tickets would sell out very fast, but I wasn't about to take any chances. My clicker finger and wrist worked at a Jesse Owens pace. I bought this ticket even forgetting to look at my schedule to make sure I was free that day. Well, it didn't matter anyway, because my schedule was going to have to make room no matter what. Did I have a friend's wedding that day? ...Forget the friend's wedding. I'll watch the DVD. Nothing was going to prevent me from attending this concert. I had so much adrenaline pumping through my system that I was shaking!
And I got the ticket! My credit card was accepted, and everything. It was going to be just in a few months.
Seriously, I was excited. If Sparks aren't in my Top 10 favorite acts of all time, then why aren't they? ...No, they're in my Top 10. My favorite is David Bowie. My second favorite is Kate Bush. My third favorite is The Beatles. My fourth favorite is...
So Earth Day eventually unveiled itself. But on that day, I wasn't thinking about things I could do to save the planet. I was thinking about all those nasty things Mother Earth could do to people. Like hurl their towns from A to B. (Going to a Sparks concert on Earth Day must be very anti-Earth Day.)
So this was at the Neptune Theater. I was sure to come extra early. The last few shows I've been to at this venue I felt pretty content to sit in the chairs in the balcony. But not this time! No sir. Definitely not this time. I stood out in the queue outside and, and as soon as I was admitted, I zipped myself directly to the center, front. There was just one person between me and the stage. And I was standing my ground, too. Sometimes, people try to squeeze in front of you. But I had my feet planted firmly. I was gonna cede my territory for no man! Or woman! ...Even a woman with considerable sexual prowess!
...Holy crap! It was Sparks! I heard someone nearby talking about how he was from Chicago and flew all the way over to the Pacific Northwest just to see them. He said the night before, he saw them in Portland. Another woman nearby me said she had waited 33 years for this day. ...Sparks have never done a show in Seattle. Rarely, anyplace else in the USA. And, you know, I am pretty sure the reason they even came here was specifically because I live here. That makes sense, right? I am a world-famous Blogger and all that. Never mind that it takes me approximately eight billion years these days to get around to writing and posting these reviews. There was a guy in front of me who I am pretty sure I also saw at the Devo/Blondie concert. I'm even more sure that he was at The Residents concert a few months ago. (Maybe I should start introducing myself? Maybe he'll invite me to some dinner parties or something?)
I was watching the side of the stage pretty carefully. The "33 years" woman said she saw a figure walk past briefly that she thought might have been Ron Mael, but then she added that it wasn't. However, I also saw the figure, and it most certainly was Ron Mael! I saw the slicked back hair and a pencil thin mustache, just for the briefest of moments.
And wow! They came on stage! Both of them! And nobody else. ...Now, this tour was known as the Two Hands and One Mouth Tour. Very bare-bones, and the first time I believe they'd ever tried something like that. From what I've seen in their European shows, they typically get a full support band and even a few special effects thrown in for good measure. Here, we got nothing but Russell prancing around on stage, singing like a pixie, and Ron staying put at his keyboards acting like a total weirdo. ...In other words, it was awesome. Unquestionably, I would have preferred a full-band sound (and I had to question whether or not somebody new to Sparks would have even enjoyed this so much). However, given that I knew 90% of these songs by heart (or at least as close to "by heart" as I get), I was having a great time. I was even singing along.
OK, the moment I was waiting for the entire evening was "This Town Ain't Big Enough For Both of Us." I knew they would probably play it. Ron had already played a small snippet of it before Russell came out within a sort of Broadway-style overture. But when they played the real thing, it was complete euphoria. I couldn't believe I was really watching Sparks perform that song in front of me!
It surprised me how well preserved Russell's voice was, singing just as well as he did in the classic albums, being 67 and wrinkly and such. ...Or actually, I don't even think I'd really be able to say the guy was particularly wrinkly. Or maybe he was, but you overlook the wrinkles because he always seems to have that boyish smirk. ...Of course, Ron has had a head-start looking like an old guy from the get-go. He'd taken some time developing that look, but he'd finally got it nailed.
Anyway, that's all this concert was: Total euphoria. Everything they sang, I wanted to hear. Even a song I had been completely unfamiliar with, like "Singing in the Shower," which was a collaboration with French pop artist Rita Mitsouko. (OK, that's not one of their best songs. But it's kind of catchy and a cut above their usual output in the late '80s and early '90s, so it was kind of neat to learn about it that evening.)
One of the best things about this band--apart from them just being generally awesome--is that their new stuff is just as good (if not even better) than their old stuff. As a consequence, I wanted to hear both of these eras equally. I was even a bit disappointed they didn't get around to playing anything from Exotic Creatures of the Deep. However, they did play quite a few songs from Lil' Beethoven, an album I remember listening to constantly during a storied season of my life, Fall 2006. And of course off-and-on in the subsequent seasons. The first song they played was off that album, "The Rhythm Thief." Given that the original song really didn't have a back beat to begin with, Ron didn't have to take away much from the song, just tapping out the complicated rhythms with his keyboard, and it was certainly a good choice to open the concert. They also played "Suburban Homeboy" toward the end of the show. I'd heard that song at least 50 times, but for some reason it didn't strike me until this show how hilarious its lyrics are. Those lyrics were resonating with me so much the days following this show that I was not only constantly singing them under my breath, I even had a dream of being in Philadelphia (of all places), approaching a Caucasian in a wife-beater and yelling at him "Yo yo!"
They also sang "My Baby's Taking Me Home," which Russell was trying to coach the audience into singing with him. Naturally, it's a perfect sing-along, seeing that the vast majority of it consists of repeating the song title. And he needed us to repeat it while he recited that poem in the middle.
There were a few songs I almost couldn't believe I was hearing. Or, rather, songs that I might characterize as more "obscure" than the others, such as the graceful waltz from Indiscreet "Under the Table With Her." In all honesty, I probably should have forgotten about that song considering that Indiscreet isn't an album I find myself listening to so often. The most unexpected thing was "The Wedding of Jacqueline Kennedy to Russell." It's mostly a cappella in which Russell leaves a message on Jacqueline Kennedy's answering machine of him conducting a wedding ceremony between himself and her. After leaving the message, Ron played a small snippet of "The Wedding March."
"Sherlock Holmes" was another song I wasn't really expecting, from Angst in My Pants, and it was great they played it. A song I was expecting and I got was the album's title track!
So even though I consider Sparks pretty much my favorite band of all time, I still hadn't gotten around to hearing their Seduction of Ingmar Bergman album, which means the selections they played was the first time I was hearing it. (Actually I remember when that album was released, it wasn't immediately clear to me where I could buy it. So I guess I put it on the back-burner after that and forgot it was there.) I remember Russell saying that they were about to go to Cannes to try to get funding for a film version, directed by Guy Maddin. (I've watched a number of Guy Maddin films and loved them. They're weird, make about as much sense as one of your dreams, and of course they're deliberately non-mainstream. Does that indicate you need the same sort of twisted mind to enjoy Sparks as you do Guy Maddin?) ...Anyway, stuff they played from Ingmar Bergman was excellent. ("I am Ingmar Bergman," "Mr. Bergman, How Are You," "We've Got to Turn Him Round," "He's Home"). From Hello Young Lovers, we also got a rousing rendition of "Dick Around" and then one of my favorite songs of theirs they've ever done: "Metaphor." I had a blast chanting along with the crowd, most of whom also seemed to know the lyrics: "Chicks dig dig d-i-g dig dig metaphors."
There were quite a few songs from Propaganda, beginning with the brief title track and then following that up with "At Home, At Work, At Play." Then toward the end of the show, they hadddddd to play "Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth." (Sparks songs aren't terribly well recognized among the general public; however, that one song has been covered by a number of artists... most prominently Neko Case.) And one of the songs I was anticipating the most was "When Do I Get to Sing My Way." That's definitely the sort of song that would be difficult to pull off with this minimalist format, given that the studio cut has pretty strong techno overtones. However, Ron bypassed that and gave it a more cerebral approach.
Now, where they couldn't really get away without having a heavy dance beat of some sort were the two songs in the encore: "Number One Song in Heaven" and "Beat the Clock." For that, Russell had some pre-programmed rhythm into his keyboard such that all he had to do was play a chord and the keyboard filled in the beat. It was still quite a minimalist presentation. By the way, the encore lasted 19 minutes. I know that, because here is a video of it posted on YouTube. And look! I can see the huge bald spot on the back of my head throughout this entire video! (I am wearing a blue coat and am on the right corner of the frame.)
Sorry, embedding is disabled for this video...
You'll notice around 12:00 mark, Russell takes over the keyboards, and Ron walks over to the center stage and does a silly dance. ...I was cracking up...
After performing a brand new song they wrote especially for this tour, a wayward piano ballad named "Two Hands, One Mouth," Russell left the stage for a bit and came back with his smart phone. He asked Ron to take a picture of him with the Seattle crowd! Ron had a bemused expression on his face and I seem to think he didn't know Russell was planning that. ...Anyway, I found a copy of both these pictures on Facebook. Regrettably, my face is either totally whited out or cut out of the frame.
One thing Russell said that excited me was that they had plans to come back! I was hoping that meant next time they would bring a backing band with them. ...I mean, I felt fortunate as hell I got to see these guys as it was, particularly considering I didn't think I ever would, but thinking about how they would be with a full band makes me have stars in my eyes!