Sparks, The Town Hall, New York, 29th March 2022
Updated: Apr 5, 2022
Sparks are an odd band. In the last 51 years, they have released 24 albums, plus one collaboration album with Franz Ferdinand (as FFS). That's a lot of music and they have covered numerous styles including glam, rock, electro, techno, Baroque, dance, pop, cabaret, orchestral, art pop....seeing them live means you have no idea what you are in for. But it will be interesting, no matter what. As they have said themselves, they have a "hostility to being boring".
The nucleus is brothers Ron and Russell Mael. Ron writes the music and the vast majority of the lyrics, while Russell sings them, with enthusiasm and often stretched and strained vocals. His brother refuses to write in his key, instead writing what he feels suits the songs. And whilst Russell's look has developed and changed as he's aged, Ron looks exactly the same as he did back in 1971.
Famously, when John Lennon first saw the Sparks on TV, he called Ringo to say: 'Turn on the telly. Hitler is playing with Marc Bolan'.
Tonight's show is at The Town Hall, a venue built by suffragists and opened in January 1921, to educate people and ensure there were no bad seats in the house. They succeeded in that, seeing Sparks live is always an education and we have a fantastic view. They might however have spent more time building bars and might have also set some rules about pricing for drinks. Queues for a drink are ridiculous, though the staff behind the bar make heroic efforts to get people sorted quickly. The prices would make your eyes water though. Not in the spirit of the lovely people who built the place.
There's no support and Sparks take the stage, all in black, except Russell, who is wearing a fetching, sleeveless double-breasted canary yellow suit. There's no danger we won't see Russell tonight. I may need one of these for work…
The show covers songs from 14 of their 25 albums. It's eclectic and mad, and great fun. Their are real fans around us - there are two young women in their 20s ahead of us who know every word to every song, which is quite a feat. And they dance constantly for the whole show, no matter what style Sparks are playing from the many different styles they have developed over the years.
The gig is fun, and there are great moments, but it never feels cohesive and more disappointing, there is no real show in terms of the set. It's a basic and bare stage - one might have expected more in terms of presentation from such a theatrical band. And one or two songs really are unbearable - My Baby's Taking Me Home includes the lyric "Home, my baby's taking me home" which is repeated 104 times...it's a bit much.
But there are many highlights too. When Do I Get To Sing 'My Way'? is fab, I Married Myself is all hammy acting as Russell sings to himself in a mirror, tongue firmly placed in cheek. No 1 Song In Heaven is throbbing Giorgio Moroder dance music, and gives Ron his centre stage moment, to do his on the spot dance - he's 76 and is still a mover and groover - check out this little short video. Shopping Mall Of Love also has Ron sardonically describing his new love with a stunning lack of enthusiasm. It's as arch a song as you'll get.
Johnny Delusional from their FFS collaboration is a standout, along, of course, with This Town Ain't Big Enough For The Both Of Us, which is the perfect (and completely bonkers) pop song. It's storming.
But...but...but...the whole show just doesn't set our world ablaze. It's fun, but there's something missing. A second guitarist to beef up the sound (they were due to have one, but the poor chap has COVID). A more interesting stage. And maybe a more cohesive setlist. But I guess that's the point of Sparks. They aren't playing for us, they are playing for them and that's what's kept them interesting for over fifty years. But I don't think I'll be seeing them again. A shame.