The Theatre at Ace Hotel
Sunday, February 15
It's not easy being a Sparks fan. Over the course of their four-decade career, L.A.-bred brothers Russell and Ron Mael have thrived on defying expectations, constantly reinventing themselves and their sound: from glam-rock to synth-pop to chamber music to whatever you want to call the hyper-stylized pop of recent efforts like Hello Young Lovers and Exotic Creatures of the Deep. As a fan, you can never get too attached to their current incarnation, because in a few years, they'll probably come back as something else.
Throughout their many metamorphoses, the Mael brothers have rarely paused to look back. But in recent years, they've begun exploring their massive back catalog — first as a stripped-down duo, on their “Two Hands, One Mouth” tours, and now with the backing of a full, 38-piece orchestra, for a very limited run of two shows in London and two at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles.
The centerpiece of their orchestral shows is a complete performance of their 1974 album, Kimono My House. A masterpiece of '70s rock pomp and bombast, on par with Queen's Sheer Heart Attack, Kimono My House's ornate, offbeat melodies and arrangements translated well to the full orchestra, especially with Ron Mael's highly rhythmic, percussive keyboards and a full rock drum kit propelling things along. And even at the second of their two shows at the Ace over the weekend, Russell Mael's swooping falsetto remained forceful and expressive, a remarkably powerful instrument for a guy who's now in his late sixties.
The audience, a random assortment of diehard fans in Sparks T-shirts and kimonos alongside denizens of DTLA's stylish Arts District crowd and the odd prog-rocker (there was at least one Primus T-shirt in attendance), was attentive but relatively subdued. They clapped along enthusiastically to the snappy glam-rock backbeat of “Talent Is an Asset” and joined Russell in a sing-along of “Equator” at the conclusion of the Kimono portion of the evening. But otherwise, it felt less like a rock concert and more like an evening at L.A. Phil.
So by the 20-minute intermission, you could sense a certain restlessness in the audience. The orchestral Kimono My House had been an interesting and occasionally dazzling experiment, but it was hard not to miss Adrian Fisher's flashy guitars from the original album. Anticipation was running high to see how the Mael brothers would put the orchestra through its paces for the show's second half.
The second set did not disappoint. Beginning with the “The Rhythm Thief” off 2002's minimalist chamber-pop masterpiece, Lil' Beethoven, the next 10 songs hop-scotched across Sparks' richly varied catalog in surprising and satisfying ways. Though many of the selections were probably familiar only to diehard fans, the highlights were plentiful, starting with the frenetic “Let the Monkey Drive” off 2008's Exotic Creatures of the Deep, which let the string section really rip, and culminating with the evening's most familiar tune, their 1979 Giorgio Moroder collaboration, “The Number One Song in Heaven.”
The evening's other big surprise came when Russell Mael invited Franz Ferdinand's Alex Kapranos out to duet with him on “When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'” off 1994's Gratuitous Sax and Senseless Violins. Sparks announced a project with Franz Ferdinand (still in the works) over a year ago, which caused more than a little head-scratching among fans of both bands. But last night, hearing Mael's and Kapranos' voices trade verses, the collaboration made more sense. Sparks' influence stretches further than their cult status might suggest, to everyone from Morrissey to They Might Be Giants — so it should come as no surprise that even Franz Ferdinand's spiky, danceable Brit-pop owes a debt to the Mael brothers.
Before an encore of their 1985 single “Change,” Russell Mael profusely thanked the orchestra and conductor Suzie Katayama, as well as arranger Nathan Kelly. “It's such a huge undertaking,” he said of the massive orchestral project, “but we would've been remiss if we didn't do it in our hometown.”
This Town Ain't Big Enough for the Both of Us
Falling in Love With Myself Again
Here in Heaven
Thank God It's Not Christmas
Hasta Mañana, Monsieur
Talent Is an Asset
In My Family
The Rhythm Thief
Get in the Swing
Let the Monkey Drive
Looks, Looks, Looks
Pulling Rabbits Out of a Hat
I Am Ingmar Bergman
Oh My God
When Do I Get to Sing “My Way”
The Number One Song in Heaven