Sparks @ Avalon Hollywood, 5/20/06

Sparks are perhaps the most singular act on the pop scene at any given moment they decide to release a record. (They’ve made 20 of them in 30+ years, taking a few breaks here and there.) It is rock, pop, jazz, opera, showtunes, dance, and experimental. Sometimes all at once. To break out the bag o’cliches and say Sparks are “over the top” or an “acquired taste,” is only to demonstrate how useless are these phrases which rely on outside references are when trying to place them in this pop music thing. For example, at some point in the 80’s they might have invented techno when working Giorgio Moroder. The lyrics are always camp and ironic, but still manage deliver genuine emotion and raw sentiment, a tricky feat. Russell’s highflying lead vocal is probably the most divisive element in their sound; it conjures strong feelings, either for or against. His voice carries the tenor and spirit of Marc Bolan and Freddy Mercury, though one forgets Sparks were contemporaries with both T-Rex and Queen, the first Sparks LP having dropped in 1971.

Their brilliant current LP Hello Young Lovers is a readymade Vegas show in and of itself. In fact, presenting it as they did, all ten tracks in order without a break, with a unique animation accompanying each (with Ron comically interacting with the visuals, which included a lifesize projection of himself playing keyboard in a bit of PoMo cheekiness, as well as a cartoon Notre Dame Cathedral organ, to which he pulled up a stool and “played”) and the players clad in all black, the record seems destined to end up as a stage piece somewhere. Hello Young Lovers is every bit as inventively quirky and energetic as anything I’ve heard by them. Perhaps only Neil Young can match them for strength of late career releases.

After the presentation of the new album, they took an intermission, ditched the all-black duds, and returned to an open stage to play nothing but the hits. (Sidebar: More bands with extensive back catalogs need to do this. Too many live shows suffer midset lulls with lesser-known material. Get the new ones out in a burst, let everyone hit the bar, take a break, and then run off the classics.) Classics such “Number 1 Song In Heaven” and “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us,” are still unique, striking pop statements decades later.

The crowd was enthusiastic, calling out for old favorites and instantly recognizing tunes within 2 bars of Ron’s piano. Their interplay with the band (Russell mainly, really) gave the room the feeling of an airing of the Rocky Horror Picture Show, whose own devoted cult following might be compared to that of the Sparks (though that film itself is a one-off fluke, obviously lacking the depth of the Sparks catalog. Perhaps Monty Python fans are another comparison, but even the volume of their output doesn’t match up to that of Sparks.)

When he finally arrived at the inevitable last-but-not-least part of the band intros, coming over to stand next to his silent brother and Sparks musical maestro, Ron, Russell remarked, “It’s lonely being a Sparks fan.” Self-deprecating sure, but perhaps painfully accurate too. And, surveying the Avalon on a Saturday night at this roundabout homecoming show for Sparks, one wonders: who exactly are these Sparks fans in 2006? When the floodlights burst on to punctuate key fist in the air moments (such as the emphatic “Rock! Rock! Rock!” chants in, uh, “Rock Rock Rock” from the new LP), highlighting the crowd, one got a look at who exactly these Sparks fans were, and if in fact they appeared to be a lonely bunch. The assembled throng was a cross section of hipster dilettantes, art punks, muscled gays, and many seemingly ordinary people maybe on other side of 40, that one snobbishly might sense don’t come out for very many shows. One homely schlub, balding a bit, maybe in his early 40’s, in an Adult Swim t-shirt, apparently standing by himself looking like some R. Crumb degenerate strikes one as particularly representative of this delegation for some reason. One wonders if it is in fact an essential loneliness that binds these disparate camps together and drives them to seek out pop art at its most esoteric fringes. (We can take up this particular chicken vs. egg debate another time.) But, as Russell continued, he appended this line with and I’m paraphrasing from memory, because my phone’s video function is some useless bullshit—“That’s OK, we’re all here with each other tonight,” putting a perfect bracket of both self-awareness and camaraderie on the festivities.

Closing the night with their ballad “Change,” Sparks left the stage with the line “I don’t care what other people say / Just ignore them and they’ll go away.” One can’t help but attempt to consider this as some kind of philosophy of life and art when thinking of this unique band and their unique fans outside the confines of the Hollywood Avalon, out and about in the world.