Just over two years ago, timeless whimsical art-pop duo Sparks made their first appearance in the Bay Area in years, in the form of a stripped-down two-man show that spanned the entire course of their career. What probably WASN’T immediately well known, however, was the presence of members of another band at at least one of those very same shows: Alex Kapranos and the other musicians of Franz Ferdinand, who watched the show as regular members of the audience (and then joined the boys backstage after the gig). This wasn’t the first time that Ron and Russel Mael, the brothers of Sparks, had discussed working with the Glasgow rockers, but this gathering became the impetus to make something even bigger — and less than a year after those concerts, the supergroup FFS (named for the bands that make it up) was formed, with their eponymous album cranked out a few months later. The album and the band are their own unique experiences; FFS has a playfulness that recalls the best work of Sparks, which blends smartly with the bombastic showmanship of a big rock show — the sort of thing that Franz Ferdinand is well known for. Lest fans be worried that there’s a clear divide between the two groups, the truth couldn’t be more clear: the two sets of musicians play off of each other marvelously, and when it all comes together under one roof, the FFS live show is a different experience all by itself.
As there were likely many fans who arrived because of their interest in one half of the headliners over the other, both support acts seem to pull in plenty of elements of the headliners so that the audience’s idea of the main event would be somewhere in the orbit of what the men of FFS had in store for the show. Local performer Carletta Sue Kay brought the show simmering into existence, with a short set of songs that were as large in duration as they were in grandeur. Carletta danced, leapt, thrashed, and belted out note after note, with all the stunning power of a world-class opera singer, while the supporting band steadily grooved along behind. Following this gentle but majestic kickoff, the Seattle quintet known as The Intelligence ripped immediately into their set of speedy lo-fi punk numbers with absolutely zero signs of letting up. While the rest of the band kept a steady dynamic on their side of things, guitarist Dave Hernandez (formerly from The Shins) could be contained, his face twisted in a series of wry, snarling expressions as he threw himself back and forth across his corner of the stage. The furious blend of energy, combined with a dozen quick numbers all stuffed into the span of half a set, was the perfect thing to kick things up a few notches, in prep for the headliners’ appearance onstage.
How best to describe FFS themselves? Despite this being the final date of their tour, they were absolutely bursting with energy, and every note was amplified by the marvelous dance-and-sing-off between Russel Mael and Alex Kapranos. The pair traded lyrics, harmonies, and footwork back and forth, aglow with marvelous camaraderie and the deft, precise movements of a pair of expert speed chess players. Around them, the remaining members of Franz Ferdinand shook and swayed back and forth, while the statuesque Ron Mael fixed the audience with his piercing stare, his gaze never shifting as he carried the set onwards via his expert keyboard work. The original concept of FFS might have sounded like a curious experiment when it was first birthed, but the chemistry displayed onstage was that of a brilliant collection of long-time friends, each in tune with each others’ movements and as excited to be onstage together as they were to perform.
While the majority of the set was the entirety of the FFS album, a real treat came in the form of the full supergroup performing songs from the individual bands, with their own spins thrown in. Sparks songs like “The Number One Song In Heaven” and “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us” sounded absolutely gigantic with the men of Franz Ferdinand providing their own jangly, massive sonic backdrop, and the near-soprano vocal harmonies from Russell put a brand new shimmer on “Do You Want To”, “Michael”, and Franz Ferdinand’s biggest hit “Take Me Out”. As was somewhat expected, given the fanbase, a bigger fanfare erupted from the crowd for each of the non-FFS songs than most of the others in the set, though songs like “Dictator’s Son” and “Police Encounters” got everyone dancing around in a frenzy just the same. The set closer “Piss Off”, in fact, had the most enthusiastic response (mostly in sing-along form) of the night, with fists raised and voiced cracking to belt out the fierce refrain; a short while later, the show finally came to an end with a sweeping, gargantuan performance of “Collaborations Don’t Work”, which floated, swelled, and crescendoed back and forth, shifting and molding into an epic performance all its own.
Though it is possibly the end for FFS at this point — after all, they’re the ones who said “collaborations don’t work”, even if it was mostly in jest — the journey to this point was certainly an exciting one. It was clear that Sparks had some new energy that they were itching to crank out and fuse into something heretofore unexpected and radically exciting; meanwhile, Franz Ferdinand had seemed to be slipping towards a rather formulaic routine for their last two records, so the chance to jump-start their own creativity with the help of a pair of acclaimed pop weirdos was everything they could have wanted. All of this showed in the joyous dynamic they displayed onstage, from the first notes of “Johnny Delusional” to the final bows they took together on the stage. FFS may be a supergroup, but they are truly an act unto themselves, so we can only hope that they have even more in store for us in the future.
Additional photos from the show below. All photos © 2015 Jonathan Pirro.
Carletta Sue Kay: