Sparks: Two Hands One Mouth (The Chapel, San Francisco, Tuesday, April 9, 2013)

photo(2)“I am the rhythm thief / Say goodbye to the beat / I am the rhythm thief /Auf wiedersehen to the beat.” 
   
Russell Mael is 64 years old, but don’t tell his voice and dance moves this bit of unnecessary buzzkill news. An elf possessed, Russell is singing and prancing around the stage at The Chapel, here in San Francisco, even more than he did when he and his motionless brother Ron Mael first formed Sparks at film school in Los Angeles in 1971.

I’m smiling, and a bit relieved. On my way to the show, I’d been feeling down. My wife didn’t want to go to the show, and typically I’m fine flying solo, but as I drove over the Bay Bridge to the city, I started to feel weird. I’d picked up the ticket online at the last minute because I hadn’t been sure the songs work in this stripped down duo setting. It was a warm night on Valencia street, but I still felt uneasy as I parked and went to the will call booth. Once inside, there seemed to be an interminably long wait and the pre-show tape of John Phillip Sousa organ marches kept playing and playing. How much Sousa is too much Sousa? I found out last night. {*note: I have no idea if it really was Sousa, but you get my meaning.]

I was already tired of standing on my feet, the band were a half an hour late. Was this going to be worth my time?
   
“Oh no, where did the groove go, where did the groove go, where did the groove go?”

So there we were, show finally underway, and Russell is accompanied only by Ron on piano/synth for this duo concert, rather more of a retrospective recital, which also happens to be opening night of the American leg of Sparks’ Two Hands, One Mouth tour that will hit Coachella on Friday and wind down in New York (for now) on April 25th.

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Ron Mael, who has only matured as a player and composer, will be 68 in August but there are advantages to having always looked like a movie star from a George Hurrell silent screen portrait. He has always had the air of a serious composer, balanced by Russell’s earlier persona as a poodle-haired, if more erudite, Marc Bolan. Today, Russell’s short (dyed?) mop and manically theatrical gestures suggest Dana Carvey in a Beatles wig doing John Cameron Mitchell’s Hedwig moves. Calm down, I love all those things. And Russell is magnificent.

Their full repertoire is remarkably well-represented on this tour, and fans of their earlier, Island Records albums will be happy to hear cracking duo versions of “Hospitality On Parade”, “Propaganda”, “At Home, At Work, At Play” and, of course, “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For Both Of Us”, which went over incredibly well with the Chapel audience, who seemed to represent fans from every Sparks era.
   
“This is the number one song in heaven
Why are you hearing it now, you ask
Maybe you’re closer to here than you imagine…”
   
The Giorgio Moroder years were perhaps translated most easily to a solo synthesizer accompaniment, however, and versions of “The No. 1 Song In Heaven” “Singing In The Shower” and “Beat The Clock” seemed to answer the earlier inquiries about where the groove had gone.  Ron even surprised everyone by dancing out front, although his vintage steps made him seem more like a bowling trophy come to life.

“A metaphor is a glorious thing
 A diamond ring,
The first day of summer
A metaphor is a fresh air
A turn-on,
An aphrodisiac…
Chicks dig metaphors.
Use them wisely, Use them well,
And you’ll never know the hell of loneliness…”
   
At their cleverest lyrically, the duo versions of songs like the above referenced “Metaphor”, along with “Sherlock Holmes”, “Angst In My Pants” made me realize just how much they are the legitimate fathers of They Might Be Giants, albeit a decidedly more Eurocentric one. In fact, it is only when Ron or Russell speak (and RON ACTUALLY SPOKE, guys, breaking my imagined sort of Penn & Teller fourth wall) that you realize that, deep down, these guys are pure L.A. film school, regardless of how many UK air miles they must have.

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Nowhere is this mild thread of (playful) disdain for their own Hollywood backyard more evident than when they performed excerpts from their opera, The Seduction Of Ingmar Bergman. The songs seem to play on the clash and preconceived notions of high art vs. low art, themes which could also describe a cleverer-than-most L.A. band working with a full thesaurus and more than three chords. Donning a mischievous beret, Ron represented the great Swedish film director as he played the opening chords of “I Am Ingmar Bergman”, and began speaking.
   
“I am Ingmar Bergman. You may or may not know my films. You may or may not know anything about me as a person…” 
   
And then the pull to reveal:
   
“Have you ever felt compelled to do something against your will? I have. I have. You see, I have a total disdain for escapist art, and yet why, on that cold May afternoon in Stockholm in 1956, did I feel the need to enter that movie theater to see escapist art of the worst sort, a typical American action film…well, the title is not what is important. What is important is that I felt compelled to watch that film, against my will, for 90 long minutes. Why? Was it the urge to partake of something mindless?” 
   
After they played a few songs from the work, Russell told the audience at the Chapel that the two intend to take the script for The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman to Cannes in search of backers for a feature film.  I sure hope they get it. 
   
“So when do I get to sing ‘My Way’
When do I get to feel like Sinatra felt?” 

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Soon, the end was near and after an extended encore, the house lights came on and more Sousa marches guided us back out into Valencia street. But the street now seemed a little more alive. Ron and Russell had changed my San Francisco night.

This town was big enough, as it turns out, for both of them.

All photos © Paul Myers 2013

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2 Responses to “Sparks: Two Hands One Mouth (The Chapel, San Francisco, Tuesday, April 9, 2013)”

  1. great review paul!

  2. Deborah R Says:

    How fun to read this and know the brothers are still making their music in front of a paying audience, and that there is an audience who will pay to join them. I know no one would remember them or even know their music…Al Stewart blew through here last summer but I was out of town….boo hoo…Thanks for posting with pictures, it filled me with glee.

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