The brotherly rock duo of Ron and Russell Mael who go by the name Sparks may very well be the biggest cult band in the world today, but I can see that contradicting label is clearly changing for them after witnessing their pair of sold out shows at Town Hall this week. This pair has been playing and recording since the early 70’s and have released 24 studio albums in all, and yet, in over 50 years they have never scored a really big commercial hit, even though they certainly have brushed up against success many times. Yet they have soldiered on, and along the way, they have collected a small and adoring crowd of worshipers that has followed their every move. However, over the last several years the band had been experiencing a rebirth of sorts, with their last album released a couple years back during the COVID lockdown becoming their 4th top 10 UK release. Their cult-ish status has changed even more drastically over the last year or so with the release of two movies that have radically changed their exposure- the lovingly adoring documentary called The Sparks Brothers by director Edgar Wright of Shawn of The Dead and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World fame, and then the release of a grand musical Annette by French director Leos Carax starring big name acting talents like Adam Driver and Marion Cotillard, all of which has radically changed this once obscure band into a sensational hit. The difference is quite noticeable, as only a few years ago they played the much smaller downtown venue (Le) Poisson Rouge, and now they are selling out 2 nights at the much larger midtown venue Town Hall. It was really amazing to see these two finally receive the admiration and respect they so richly deserve as the many loud sing-alongs and standing ovations during their NYC shows spelled out in affectionate and loving detail.
Sparks is a band that have influenced entire genres of music over their many years in the business, as many artists have taken their distinctly wacky sound and woven it into their own from New Order to Beck. Although they have certainly explored many edges of the musical landscape over the years, their sound is often known to be grandiose and operatic, breaking into the soundscapes of synth pop, orchestral glam, and even prog rock, with some groundbreaking electronic instrumentation also influencing that musical revolution that became the 80’s New Wave. I often hear them as an artful cross between Queen and Devo at their respective primes, but pinning them down to any particular sound is a fools errand in general, as they love to keep the listeners guessing and often like to tread that thin line of absurdist art and sincere expression. It was also great to see them playing with a full band again, with guitarist Eli Pearl, bassist Max Whipple, keyboardist Tyler Parkford (of the band Mini Mansions) and some truly stunning drumming by veteran rhythm master Stevie Nistor. Even this lineup has not escaped the continuing pandemic unscathed, as their guitarist Evan Weiss had to bow out of the tour temporarily after testing positive recently, but will apparently be returning to the band soon.
Ron is the deadpan mustachioed brother who spends most of his time behind the keyboards. He is the one who ironically writes all of the songs, and even he soaked in the admiration and broke his typically stony gaze with many sheepish grins throughout the sets, and he even got up to dance around more than once during the shows. Still, Russell is the star singer of the group, and I was quite astounded by his impressive vocal range and bouncy dance moves that he continues to excel at even into his 70’s. I must say he sets a high bar for other rock legends to have to pole vault over to move me as much as he did. They did play largely the same set both nights, but they did reach for songs from all over their impressive catalogue. From the classic “Wonder Girl” from their Todd Rundgren-produced 1971 self-titled debut album, along with some of their classics like “Tips for Teens,” “Stravinsky’s Only Hit,” “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us,” Ron getting up to dance to “The Number One Song in Heaven,” the quirky harmonies of “Lawnmower,” were fantastic. They even played recent gems like “Johnny Delusional” from their collaboration with Franz Ferdinand, and even performed a couple cuts from their Annette score, starting with the opener “So May We Start,” and the show’s closer of “All That” from their last album A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip proved to be the perfectly prophetic closer to the night. Towards the end Ron even revealed that they were indeed working on a new album and even have a new musical in the works, so I expect that this duo will continue to astound audiences for ages to come.
Article/Photos: Dean Keim