The show began with Russell coming out and delivering a few lines into a digital delay with no fanfare, but it soon became apparent that none was needed! They were starting the show with “Your Call Is Very Important To Us – Please Hold” from their 2002 opus “L’il Beethoven!” I didn’t imagine in a thousand years that they could perform the densely multi-tracked number live, but having only seen guitarists work miracles with digital delays, I will admit that it didn’t occur to me that Russell could lay down loops of the mandatory layers of backing vocals in the same way! Curse me for the novice! Once he had the loops flowing, Ron Mael arrived, stage right to sit at his keyboard as he began to play and the song began in earnest.
You could have knocked me over with a feather. This was my favorite Sparks song from my favorite Sparks album and it was here, right before my eyes and ears in all of its anxiety-provoking glory! This was a most auspicious way to kick off my first Sparks show. I had seen the band perform before on their “Live In London” DVD, recorded during their “Balls” tour of 1999 so the classic Sparks stage presence was known to me. Ron, looking for all the world like a better-groomed version of my mother’s father with his equally stern demeanor giving us nothing but the music; all of it flowing from his “Ronald” synth. I’d heard that this was a “piano and voice” tour. Maybe the first leg was, but this evening would feature many synth patches to dominate the more genteel piano stylings that were only occasionally present.
Russell seemed especially animated this evening. I was not certain to put it down to his natural ebullience or whether his strong physicality was compensation for the lack of drums to keep time to. It almost seemed as if he were internalizing the rhythms to better keep in time. He stomped around the stage like a man possessed, seeming nothing at all like a man of his 65 years. Or maybe, he was just overcompensating for Ron. In any case, his extremely physical performance was almost as exciting as his still astounding vocal range. As deft as Ron’s fingers were, Russell was equally fleet of voice; hitting all of the countless classic falsetto moments within the songs with scant effort.
Songs from the depth and breadth of their full oeuvre erupted from the pair on the stage and my wife soon left our seats behind for the “pit” area in front of the stage. Any band that can get my wife out of comfortable seating at a concert is doing something very right! It was bold of them to peel another track from “L’il Beethoven” [“How Do I Get To Carnegie Hall?”] immediately following the opener, but why knock success? I think we’re all in agreement that it’s the sort of late period astonishing classic that virtually no bands are capable of making by well over 30 years into the game!
“Here in Heaven” and “Academy Award Performance” darted between 1974 and 1979 and sounded none the worse for wear for being from the first quarter of their career. Then another modern classic soon manifested itself when “Good Morning” from 2008’s “Exotic Creatures of the Deep” like a madrigal devoted to the least expected of one night stands. The conceit of this song, with the narrator humbly thanking god for delivering unto him an apparently rare, cheap, one night stand is a potent reminder that no other band have such a unique and skewed artistic point of view. Even if Queen did nick their sound for “Bohemian Rhapsody.” But there was no way that they could come close to Ron’s P.O.V. Not even in the same hemisphere.
One song performed had me scratching my head and consulting the internet afterward. “What Would Katherine Hepburn Say” was apparently written for one Christie Hayden to perform. Who is Christie Hayden? As near as I can tell, she has a Discogs credit for being the photographer for the brothers’ “Gratuitous Sax + Senseless Violins” album! The obscurity of this number was certainly sufficient to get tongues wagging.
A highlight of these “Two Hands, One Mouth” tours is the excerpting of several tracks from their newest project, “The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman” even though the thought of any one segment being aired separately resists common sense. Fortunately, by performing a small, concert within a concert, with four tracks representing the whole, fantastical concept album, a good feel for the emotional arc of the storyline [involving the hypothetical corruption of Bergman with Hollywood dollars] manages to come across and whets the appetite for more. It also allowed Ron to don a beret and take the lead vocals for the “I Am Ingmar Bergman” section wherein the director expounds on his thoughts on escapist entertainment and “selling out.”
I don’t have this album yet since it is decidedly difficult to buy on what used to be a common CD; my preferred format. Fortunately, Russell informed the audience that the mooted film of the story is moving forward with equally iconoclastic director Guy Maddin [“The Saddest Music In The World”] at the director’s helm. The mention of this was accompanied by wild applause from these quarters since I’m also a fan of Maddin. Here’s hoping that it doesn’t end up in Development hell since their pairing is an inspiring thing.
Next: …The classic and modern cheek by jowel
Thank you for plainly stating how Queen nicked the Brothers’ sound for Bohemian Rhapsody!! I have said this to my hard rock friend fans for years with typical responses including that I have no idea what I’m talking about…I would go one step further to say Night At The Opera as a whole has a feel of a band and producer who had been out to a Sparks show prior to entering the studio to record.
Echorich – Queen reputedly opened for Sparks during their Imperial Period in the UK. They went from a second rate Zeppelin clone to a second rate Sparks clone seemingly overnight. All of this a year after “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us” nearly topped the UK charts. Unfortunately for Sparks, Queen’s commercial ascendency muscled them out of the charts, until they went Disco with Moroder… Only to have Queen follow suit with “The Game” the very next year with Moroder right hand Mack producing!! How it must have galled the Maels to have Queen aping their every move… All the way to the bank!!
chasinvictoria – Russell hit “retirement age” on October, 5th.