Reviewed by Jeffrey B. Remz
Sparks has been around for a good half-century. Brothers Russell – he's the lead singer – and Ron – he's the ever expressionless one on the Roland keyboards – Mael have never been hitmeisters over the course of 25 albums. They've certainly had their ups and downs professionally, but they forge on in their own quirky style.
How else to explain song titles like "When Do I Get to Sing 'My Way'," "Stravinsky's Only Hit" and "Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)." They just don't operate on the same wavelength as most bands. Yet, they've also been influential on a host of bands including acts like Franz Ferdinand (in fact, Sparks recorded an album in 2015 with Franz Ferdinand billed as "FFS") and electro pop acts like Erasure and New Order.
Now with COVID hopefully manageable at some level, Sparks saw fit to finally launch a tour, hitting Boston for the first time in about eight years to a nearly sold-out house.
And brothers Mael and their backing quartet were on fire from the outset with the appropriate "So We May Start" from the movie soundtrack for "Annette." The lyrics may have given a hint where Sparks is at:
They hope that it goes the way it's supposed to go
There's fear in them all but they can't let it show
They're underprepared but that may be enough
The budget is large but still, it's not enough
Yup. This was not a big budget show (the lighting was effective), but one suspects by-and-large, the show went on as planned (well, except for missing one of their guitarists, who was sick).
The Maels are no youngsters – Ron is 76, while Russell is a few years younger. Russell's voice sounds just about as fresh as ever whether falsetto, discoey, operatic or whatever was required. He was in great shape both vocally and physically from there with "Angst in My Pants," "Tips for Teens," which sounds New Wavey, "Under the Table With Her" and topped by the frenetic "Get in the Swing."
Sparks hit a bit of a lull for a stretch right after that – the songs didn't quite hit the mark like most of the 23 songs did, but eventually they were back on track for the duration of the 110-minute show.
Sparks didn't play it safe. That could be said for the song with the title and only words being "My Baby's Taking Me Home," with an intensity created both musically and vocally. One would think a song of but five words would not work. Guess again.
Ron remains about as enigmatic as ever behind the keyboards, which tended to set the anchor the songs. A backing keyboardist also helped flesh out the sound. They weren't afraid to rock at times either, such as one of their chestnuts and first hit, "This Song Ain't Big Enough For the Both of Us" (currently utilized in the Apple iPad ad), with a healthy dose of electric guitar.
Ron did take a few "vocal" turns. Really, they were spoken word while Russell sang. But on the band's biggest hit (it barely cracked the top 30 in the U.S.), "The Number One Song in Heaven," Russell came out front, took off his black jacket (he was dressed all in black) and danced around for maybe 10 seconds. Oh, but what a joy that was from this cool looking hipster.
And he would actually crack a smile or two near the end of the show with brother Russell referencing his brother.
While they could be accused of milking the crowd for applause after concluding with "All That," but cut the Maels some slack. Who'd have thunk at this point in their careers that they're seemingly in the midst of a revival? There are a few more albums on their way. The softer "All That" proved to be a fitting close with Russell seemingly singing about the Mael's relationship: "All that we've done/We've lost, we've won/All that, all that and more/All that we've seen/We've heard, we've dreamed/All that."
Life may not always have led where Sparks wanted of expected, but with optimism like that, it's easy to see why Sparks deservedly forges on.