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The Big Takeover Issue #93
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Sparks - Beacon Theatre (New York) - June 27th, 2023

14 July 2023

You know what? I’m about to say it: We need Sparks now more than ever. With a lyrical voice that is in turn witty, observant, detached, self-referential, satiric, and above all, entirely their own, only the Mael brothers are adequately equipped to comment on the current times while simultaneously providing a much needed dose of escapism. At the Beacon Theatre in New York, the band were received with open arms by an obsessive audience who knew and respected this fact all too well. Introducing the song “Nothing Is As Good As They Say It Is” from their new album The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte, Russell Mael explained it’s sung from the “point of view of a twenty-two hour-old baby who says he’s seen enough already and wants to go back.” Russell’s voice is still just as youthful and operatic as he led the show with a setlist that perfectly combined hits, fan favorites, and brand new songs that blended perfectly with everything else. So many other bands who have been around as long as Sparks tour to cash in on their legacy and their name, but Sparks continue to prove themselves as a sustainable creative force. Habitually morphing into new and rejuvenated iterations, Sparks stepped out onto the stage as a band that is both exciting and relevant.

Heading to the show, I had two things in mind. I’ve never seen Sparks live, and by far the biggest question I had was a matter of continuity. If they played a sampling of songs from their long and varied discography, how would they join it all together? Would they just play anything, transitioning from glam to disco to house? Or like David Bowie in the 90s and 00s playing his past hits, would Sparks update the songs to sound like the way the band sounds now? In reality, Sparks evened out the songs a little, beefing up the guitars occasionally or slightly ironing out the 80s new wave wrinkles, but by and large it all somehow magically worked. Transitioning from “Angst In My Pants” to “Beaver O’Lindy” shouldn’t work in theory, but because the setlist is part of some greater Sparks universe it immediately makes sense for the audience. Sparks have always dabbled with different trends or styles, but only tangentially. This seems obvious, but Sparks are the one band in the world that always sounds like Sparks at any given time.

This question of a larger Sparks ethos seemed to permeate the entire experience, because their universe is defined by a deep knowledge and respect for the popular and classical music worlds as well as a constant, unavoidable sense of alienation from them. Sparks continually break the fourth wall of being a band on stage, or even being in a band at all, and to be in the audience is to have it made abundantly clear to you, time and time again, YOU ARE AT A CONCERT. From the very first song, “So May We Start” Russell admits to the audience, “We’ve fashioned a world, a world built just for you” and then later kindly informs them, “So close all the doors and let’s begin the show / The exits are clearly marked, thought you should know.” During the bridge of the new wave classic “When I’m With You,” he points to the very nature of bridges in love songs: “It’s the break in the song when I should say something special.” There are even clear visual indicators on the stage that the band is either uneasy participating in rock customs or that they delight in drawing attention to their absurdity. The lights behind them spelled out the words SPARKS at the beginning of the show, in case you turned up to the wrong concert by mistake, and Ron Mael’s keyboard doesn’t say Roland but Ronald.

Now, I mentioned earlier that I had two questions. The second issue was maybe not as important, but possibly mattered even more to me: Would Ron do the dance? Sparks fans will immediately know what I’m referring to when I say this, but for the uninitiated, watch the “Cool Places” music video at around the two minute mark and get back to me. Ron stood up twice during the concert. The first time I jumped the gun and shouted “HE’S GONNA DO THE DANCE.” I was wrong and the song turned out to be “Shopping Mall of Love” from 1986’s Music That You Can Dance To (a dance album if you didn’t know) where Ron delivers monotone lines like “I found my thrill, I found my thrill, I found my thrill in Beverly Hills.” Other than the crowd fist pumping and repeatedly shouting the word “balls” during the anthem “Balls,” it was without a doubt the most beautifully surreal moment of the entire concert. But it was still no dance.

Then, the band played the Giorgio Moroder produced disco classic, and perhaps my all-time favorite Sparks song, “The Number One Song in Heaven.” About halfway through the song during an instrumental break in what felt like a drug-induced, trance-like moment of flashing red lights and arpeggiated synths, Ron slowly stood up, walked solemnly to the center of the stage, and with a sinister, knowing smile did the dance! You wonder if he gets tired of it in the way that Depeche Mode must be over having to do “Just Can’t Get Enough” every single night, but the dance is so much more than a novelty. It’s one more crucial signpost that says, “Here is the point of the show where the pop star does their choreographed dance routine.” Also, it’s just joyous to watch.

Outside of their personas, however, the Mael brothers seem genuinely moved by their fans and grateful for their loyalty. It’s nearly impossible to find a band that ultimately appreciates their audience this much. Whereas most bands can’t wait to get off the stage after the encore, Ron and Russell lingered appreciatively, as if thanking every single fan in attendance one by one. To be a Sparks fan feels like a clique. It’s never been the cafeteria table populated by jocks, cheerleaders, prom kings and queens, but everyone seemed deeply thankful for that, band included.