When you possess the musical longevity of a band such as Sparks, the quirky, tongue-in-cheek, orchestral-pop-electronic-smorgasboard sensation that spawned forth from the creative minds of brothers Ron and Russell Mael, it’s best if the question of what to do after 40 years of work is “what next?”, as opposed to “is this over with yet?” The latter has been embraced by many an act of yesteryear, but the Los Angeles duo showed no signs of stopping as they plunged into the new millenium, and over a decade later, they are still going strong. With the first ten years of a new era behind them, it seemed thusly appropriate to try something new and unexpected (something which, of course, has never been something that Sparks has attempted — surely not), and for their 2012/2013 tour, the pair stripped down their act to the core essentials. Absent of a band, of backing vocalists, even of a drumkit, the live version of Sparks became a new animal in the form of the “Two Hands, One Mouth” tour, so named for its simplicity of performance: Ron at the keys, and Russell at the pipes. The result is a show that, on paper, seems simple and almost comical in scope, and in presentation is just as delightful as any of their records.
The newly-opened small space in San Francisco’s Mission District known as The Chapel played host to Sparks for their first Bay Area appearance in over a decade, and just after the hour of 9:00pm, the lights descended and Ron Mael took his place by his faithful (and eponymously labelled) keyboard. The introduction he played highlighted many of the more famous motifs in Sparks’ work, including short bits of “Something For The Girl With Everything” and “Never Turn Your Back On Mother Earth” among others. Moments later, a cloud of fog heralded the appearance of Russell Mael, who deftly danced into the room on the first notes of “The Rhythm Thief”, and took to his task as lead entertainer with magnificent gusto. The juxtaposition of the mostly-stoic Ron and the jocular, prancing Russell set the stage for the evening, and the swell of piano and keyboard notes filled the room around the gorgeous falsetto and soaring tenor of the latter’s voice.
Despite the lack of additional vocal tracks, guitars, percussion, or any of the rest of the dense instrumentation that is usually paramount to Sparks’ songs, the pair pulled off their songs with an almost casual ease, and breathed a magnificent amount of life into each number through just keyboards and vocals. Russell’s exaggerated and somewhat comic dance steps added to the underlying zaniness of the pieces, and even the most repetitive piece, “My Baby’s Taking Me Home”, was pulled from boredom by the hilarious choreography that Russell displayed. Ron’s only movements were during the performance of a selection of excerpts from Sparks’ latest release, the opera The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman, which saw Ron taking the vocal duties of Bergman and donning a hat to truly capture the character of the piece. The actions were so precise and deliberate that they brought great amusement to the audience, and kept a gentle sheen of precision and shyness over Ron during his few spotlit moments.
Despite taking a new approach to their performance, Sparks’ set was comprised entirely of old classics and fan favorites. Essentials such as “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us”, “Suburban Homeboy” and “Angst In My Pants” got the biggest cheers and sing-along accompaniment from the audience, while others like “Under The Table With Her” and “Metaphor” saw Russell at his most animated, hopping from side to side as the audience swayed back and forth in time to his movements. The most striking performance was that of “Dick Around”, which was stripped down to an entirely different shape and mood, and still managed to possess all the charm and sardonic glee of its original form. For their encore, the brothers — after numerous bows, waves, and a seemingly-endless torrent of applause — returned with their biggest hit, “The Number One Song In Heaven”, and its B-side “Beat The Clock”, and Ron at last claimed the spotlight just long enough to perform a bouncing, arm-waving dance for the latter song, which called forth ecstatic cheering from his onlookers. To end the night, Ron and Russell performed the titular “Two Hands, One Mouth”, which bore closest resemblance to their work from Lil’ Beethoven, Hello Young Lovers and Exotic Creatures Of The Deep, and left the audience cheering lustily for more.
From the first day that I had my hands on Hello Young Lovers, I have always wanted to see the magic of Sparks’ music performed live onstage. My apprehension over the simplicity of the performance melted away within moments of the first few minutes of the set, and like most of the crowd around me, I stayed transfixed for the next 90 minutes as they knocked out their classic catalogue with efficiency and delight. Time seemed to have had no effect upon the Mael brothers, whose energy and shimmering melodies bore all of the vigor and joviality that their records possessed, even those of decades gone by. At the end of their performance, Russell promised that they would not spend so much time before their next appearance in San Francisco — and, judging from the ecstatic cheering of the crowd, it is a definite hope that they live by these words.
Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2013 Jonathan Pirro.