25 Apr 2013: Highline Ballroom New York
Seeing a long-established band and having it almost live up to seeing them in their prime rarely ever happens. But then Sparks aren’t your normal band in a lot of ways. In an almost consistently good 45-year career, they have written about everything from moustaches to Photoshop in every style from glam rock to classically-influenced pop, and have influenced everyone from Morrissey to Paul McCartney. Ron and Russell Mael, the two brothers behind Sparks, are now in their 60s and are showing no signs of creative drought. The tour, titled Two Hands, One Mouth, is a collection of songs from the Sparks discography reduced to nothing but keyboard and vocals. It speaks volume that neither the focus of the tour itself, nor the accompanying live album, come across as gimmicky. Both feel like a celebration of a sterling duo and nothing more.
The Two Hands, One Mouth tour began last year in Lithuania; the New York date, at Chelsea’s Highline Ballroom, stood as its final night. One doesn’t usually associate the sentimental with Sparks’ acerbic music, but what would have been an emotional night on its own was exaggerated by the many devotees who populated the sold-out show. The venue was packed wall-to-wall with fans new and old, many who didn’t have to be asked twice to stand in for percussion by clapping along to classics like “No. 1 Song in Heaven”.
Sparks were last in New York in 2002, so for younger fans, just seeing Ron Mael’s trademark “Ronald” keyboard may have been excitement enough. But the entrance of Russell Mael—which followed a musical medley of Sparks favorites—ensured the night would be more than just a refresher on the Sparks discography. Russell bounded around the stage for the show’s entire 90 minutes and sang the songs with falsetto almost entirely intact. He was as appropriately charming as his brother was unsettlingly stoic, save the moment when Ron busted out his trademark dance during “Beat the Clock”, the penultimate song of the night.
With such a vast and varied back catalogue, it would be difficult for a Sparks show to come across as dull, even with those songs being considerably pared down. Still, even a sparse rendition of “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us” will get cheers from an already enthusiastic crowd. Beginning the show with two modern classics, “The Rhythm Thief” from Lil’ Beethoven and “Metaphor” from Hello Young Lovers, Sparks quickly segued into older favorites, such as Propaganda’s “At Home, At Work, At Play” and Indiscreet’s “Under the Table with Her”.
Having the most affinity for 1982’s Angst in My Pants, I most looked forward to how these tracks would translate to Two Hands One Mouth. I was not disappointed by the bare and profound title track and the longing “Sherlock Holmes”. Other songs, like Propaganda’s “Never Turn Your Back on Mother Earth”, were more faithful but still thrilling to hear live. A keyboard-only version of a song like “Suburban Homeboy” got to the root of its Cole Porterish melody.
The night also laid claim to a surprise for even those who had been scrutinizing the tour’s set lists: after performing a few excerpts from latest album, 2009’s The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman, Russell revealed that plans on turning the faux-opera into a feature film directed by famed arty filmmaker Guy Maddin were springing into action. Russell’s admission that he, Ron, and Maddin are heading to the Cannes Film Festival to drum up money for the project was met with predictably enthusiastic cheers and applause.
The evening closed with a special song composed for the tour, in which the term “two hands, one mouth” took on a cheekier meaning than initially established. Despite two hands and one mouth being more than satisfactory, one can’t overlook the importance of Ron Mael’s lyrics and the joy of seeing hundreds of Sparks fans singing out lines like, “I’ll pop a cap up some fool at the Gap / ‘Cause I’m a suburban homeboy”. With a lot of synthy bells and whistles removed from the proceedings, Sparks’ unique lyrics became more pronounced in bite and—in terms of a song like “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’”—erudition. Both Maels ended the night by profusely thanking the audience for their ardor and promising to be back much sooner than eleven years. Although such promises can’t naturally be held, it’s safe to say that when Sparks do return, they will prove as creative and refreshing as ever.