(footage of London Barbican show 2014)
SPARKS – The Theatre at The Ace Hotel, Los Angeles, CA
February 15, 2015 (night 2 of 2)
Rock musicians have been giving their music the orchestral treatment since the 1960s with varied results. This year, apparently, it is Sparks’ turn. And not a moment too soon! Ron and Russell Mael presented their landmark 1974 album “Kimono My House” for their faithful fans over two nights this Valentine’s Day weekend at the newly renovated Theatre at The Ace Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles. But, unlike the last time they played the album in its entirety at UCLA’s Royce Hall in 2009 (coincidentally, also on February 14th), all of the evening’s material was presented with a 38-piece orchestra, conducted by Suzie Katayama. The arrangements by Nathan Kelly brought to life the full potential of Sparks’ grand operatic vision and I am hard pressed to think of another example of a rock act more deserving.
Ron Mael’s tuneful compositions and hilarious lyrics have always had a Gilbert-and-Sullivanesque quality that lends itself easily to translation from rock to operetta. This was cleverly displayed during Sparks’ recent “Two Hands One Mouth” tour, where the brothers went into piano recital mode with no backing band and stripped-down piano arrangements. This time out, lush strings, ominous horns and booming timpani stood in for the guitar, bass and other electric instruments, while Ron switched between grand and electric pianos. Decked out in kimonos and bursting with liveliness, Sparks confidently treated the audience to their reinvented masterpiece, from the classic opening number “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For the Both of Us” all the way to a haunting falsetto singalong of Equator to close out the first half of the evening. I am going to be hearing the spooky sound of all those Sparks fanatics going, “Equator… equator” in my dreams for years to come. The arrangement of “Thank God It’s Not Christmas” had the hair on the back of my neck standing at attention like it has not in quite some time, as well.
After a short intermission, the show continued with a fan-friendly (but perhaps a bit obscure for others) setlist of material that spanned all 40 years since the release of “Kimono My House”. Songs such as “Looks, Looks, Looks” and “Get In the Swing”, which were originally recorded with the backing of a full orchestra in the 70s, fit together perfectly with more recent songs like “The Rhythm Thief” and “Let The Monkey Drive”, which made use of multilayered electronics in the studio, to showcase the enormity of Ron Mael’s compositional skills. Throughout the night, little brother Russell’s voice soared flawlessly. As a frontman, he is as energetic as ever and should be commended for keeping his voice in such great shape over the years.
The special guest for both shows was Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand, with whom Sparks has been collaborating on an as-yet-unnamed new band and an album release planned for the coming year. Kapranos lent his unique vocals to an epic rendition of “When Do I Get to Sing My Way?” After a hesitant start, perhaps due to nerves at the prospect of singing alongside his idols, the duet with Russell built to a stirring conclusion worthy of any big-budget Tony-Award-winning production. It made me wish I had brought along roses I could throw at the stage from the balcony, especially after closing out the set with an incredible arrangement of “Number One Song In Heaven”. As usual, the hometown crowd shook the rafters with applause before the ensemble returned to end the night with the encore, “Change”.
One reason I consider myself lucky to live in Los Angeles is the number of times I have been able to see Sparks over the years. This particular show was, without a doubt, my favorite of all of them. It is unfortunate that they only planned two shows in Los Angeles and two in London in the orchestral format, but we can only hope an official CD/DVD release is in the works.