Sunday, February 15, 2009

Sparks at Royce Hall, February 14, 2009



When I got into L.A. a couple of nights ago, it was apparent that somebody cared that Sparks was back in its home town. Articles in L.A. Weekly and the Los Angeles Times and the cover of City Beat showed that Ron and Russell Mael were back, yet again.

This time around, Sparks played a near capacity show at the wonderful Royce Hall on the campus of UCLA, where Ron and Russell went in the '60s. Royce Hall is the type of place where you might find fine theater or jazz or Joan Baez. It's a classy joint.

Sparks began the evening by playing the band's latest album, Exotic Creatures Of The Deep (Hablo Ennui's number four album of 2008) in its entirety, for the first time in the States. Ron and Russell had the same crack band that backed them for Sparks' historic 21 albums in 21 nights stand in London last year. The rhythm section of Steven (Redd Kross) McDonald on bass and Steven Nistor (sporting a Malcolm Gladwell-esque hair-fro) on drums with Mother Superior's Marcus Blake and Jim Wilson on rhythm and lead guitar respectively.

Sparks has added a theatrical element to its shows since the 2002 release of Lil' Beethoven, which aids things a bit since the band's current approach sometimes requires backing tape enhancement to recreate the stacked choral vocals and layers of keyboards and synthesized strings. Nevertheless, Exotic Creatures melds better with the band format. In fact, there were moments during songs like "Strange Animal", "I Can't Believe That You Fell For All the Crap in this Song", and a couple of others where the band added some small wrinkles that sounded real good and served as a reminder that this was live music, not just some recreation.

The show started with models pushing shopping carts with the choral vocals of "Likeable" in the background, while Ron Mael was underneath the covers of a "bed" in the background. When the models exited the stage, the music kicked in, Ron got to his keyboard and Russell tore into "Good Morning", a song that has to be a real challenge as an opener.

After a spirited "Strange Animal", which is the most challenging song on the album, Ron and Russell did a little hand choreography for "Crap". This song really sounds like it could be a hit single if it were given the right promotion, and we'll find out if that's the case, since it's scheduled for release.

Other stage business included Ron doing his classic shuffle dance during "Let the Monkey Drive", and Ron playing the piano on the video screen background during "Photoshop", but having to contend with the image rising and falling and stretching and contracting and so forth. But the best bit was on "(She Got Me) Pregnant", where some college girls all dressed up like Ron with a bun in the oven did various choreographed dances and, at one point, surrounding Ron, who looked like he was in the midst of a nightmare. At the end of "Likeable", while the creamy choral vocals went on and on, Ronald went to the video screen, where the covers of the band's first 20 albums were set in flame (which is a holdover from the 21st show of the London residency).

Watching the set just confirmed to me what a catchy album Exotic Creatures is. The only song that didn't fully work for me was "Likeable", as the changes in the song seem a bit awkward live.

After an intermission, the band performed its 1974 classic Kimono My House. Having reviewed this show last year, I'm not sure what to add, other than it sounded great again and I was particularly struck by what an awesome song "Thank God It's Not Christmas" is. I focused on the structure. The rhythm (or is it the time signature -- I'm not a musician, if that isn't already obvious) is not standard and the song is full of such distinctive parts. Despite this less-that-typical structure, it's still a powerful piece of pop and recognizable as such, not just some piece of avant-garde rock.

Indeed, seeing the band play Kimono for a second time, I heard more than ever how Sparks was totally part of its time, and how the band fit in with the Roxy Musics and David Bowies, yet, more importantly, Ron Mael's compositions had a distinct character, even when I could discern and influence here or there (like Ray Davies, for example).

After this set, the band took a short break and rolled out one hell of an encore. Check this out: "Propaganda", "At Home At Work At Play", "BC", "Number One Song in Heaven", "Mickey Mouse", "Dick Around", "When Do I Get To Sing My Way" and, finally, "Suburban Homeboy". For about 40 minutes of music, that really shows off a lot of facets of the band.

I particularly appreciated hearing the complex "Dick Around" and the celebratory electro-disco pulse of "Heaven". But it was "At Home At Work At Play" that killed me, even though I saw them do that in London. The thing is, the last time around, I think I was in disbelief that I was hearing it and didn't soak it all in. This time, I made no such mistake.

If I had any other criticism of the show, it's that while the sound was good, sometimes the guitars were a bit too low. Otherwise, this was a dream show for a Sparks fan like me.

1 comment:

Dale said...

Very cool. You missed a killer Godfathers show here in Chicago, but for a good reason. I would have loved to have seen the Kimono set, and that's a hell of an encore.