Although they have had intermittent bouts of mainstream success, particularly in the UK, where they relocated for several years, Sparks have largely been seen as a cult act for most of their half-century career. The past couple years, however, they have been enjoying a renaissance, thanks in large part to The Sparks Brothers, the Edgar Wright–directed film documenting their twisty career path and constantly evolving sound. The band—brothers Russell and Ron Mael and backing ensemble—have spent the past month basking in that limelight on the road, making their final appearance Stateside this past Friday at the Royal Oak Music Theatre, just north of Detroit.
The show began with “So May We Start,” a song from another of the brothers’ successes this past year, the movie musical Annette. With its propulsive piano line, apropos title chorus, and verses like, “They hope it goes the way it’s supposed to go,” it was a fitting opening that quickly channeled the audience’s anticipation into excitement. It also set the tone for the theatrical nature of the performance.
“Angst in My Pants,” a personal favorite, followed. Russell seemed to be thrilled to be singing it, running back and forth from one side of the stage to the other elatedly. Ronald, on the other hand, kept his notoriously stoic demeanor seated behind his keyboard. Indeed, part of the brothers’ schtick is the contrast between them, an oddball yin and yang that played into their onstage personas, with the few moments when Ronald rose from his seat (like to dance during “The Number One Song in Heaven”) being celebrated.
“Tips for Teens” was next, followed by “Under the Table with Her.” The latter not only showed Sparks’ penchant for the operatic, but also Russell’s impressive ability to still hit the high notes. And while the set seemed very well-rehearsed and is probably the same one played every night on this tour, it ran the gamut of the band’s catalog. So what the night lacked in spontaneity, it made up for in variety and sheer thrills. Indeed, they played “Wonder Girl,” one of their earliest songs, as well as “Johnny Delusional” from their 2015 collaboration with Franz Ferdinand, FFS.
While the four minutes of “The Rhythm Thief” and its repetitive refrain of “Oh no! Where did the groove go?” could have been better spent, there were few low points during the set. “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)” soared and “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’” rang with relevant resonance before the set culminated with the one-two punch of “The Number One Song in Heaven” and “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us.”
After introducing the band, saying their thank-yous, and leaving the stage briefly, Sparks finished off the night with the hilarious “Suburban Homeboy” and an ending as fitting as the start, “All That.” Its verses about ups and downs seemed to reflect something of Sparks’ travails, and the ringing chorus seemed to hang in the air as the band took their final bows, finally enjoying their laurels.