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Sparks Play NYC for First Time Since 2002, Bring ‘Fantastic Strangeness’ to Highline Ballroom

Republic Media

It’s unlikely you’ll ever come across another band like Sparks — and in an industry full of artists desperate to sound like one another, there’s no higher praise.

For those unfamiliar with the world of Sparks, it’s hardly speaking in metaphors to say that nearly everything about the band skews a bit larger than life. Even in a relatively stripped-down — and sold-out — set at New York City’s Highline Ballroom on Thursday night (April 25), which consisted simply of brothers Russell Mael on vocals and Ron Mael on his ever-present keyboard, the band brought its own brand of majestically fantastic strangeness to New York.

For a while, catching Sparks live at all was enough of a feat that you might have better luck harnessing that unicorn you’ve had your eye on. Even though Sparks have released a wealth of studio material and have a rabid fan base, the band is notorious for rarely touring (the last time Sparks played NYC was a Central Park concert in 2002). But they’ve hit the live scene again this year, playing well-received sets at Coachella and in several other U.S. cities before ending their stateside streak in Gotham.

In the ’70s, Russell looked something like an art-house version of Marc Bolan from T. Rex. Today, at age 64, Russell appears almost freakishly young, sporting black hair and a multi-octave vocal range that’s showed little aging. (It’s unclear if Russell is hiding a portrait in the attic that’s surreptitiously aging with a serious ferocity, but we’re not going to question it.) On classics like ‘This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us’ and ‘Angst in My Pants,’ he effortlessly hit both high notes and low growls. His stage presence, meanwhile, is infectious; his onstage dancing inspired even the reserved New York audience to bust some moves of their own.

On keyboards, as always, is Ron, the other half of Sparks’ act of brotherly love (and, as Russell pointed out, Sparks’ main composer). Known for his unblinkingly stoic, mildly scowling stage persona, Ron actually spoke and danced (!) during the set — a rare treat, indeed, for the diehards in attendance.

Spanning songs from their ’70s albums through their most current release, ‘The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman’ (which Russell said director Guy Maddin is planning on turning into a feature film), the band turned over all corners of their musical catalog, much to the delight of the crowd, whose enthusiasm practically turned them into a honorary third band member by the end of the show. It was particularly impressive how Sparks managed to translate their meticulously produced albums to their minimalist stage setup. Somehow, though the group used only vocals and keyboards (thus the name of this Two Hands, One Mouth tour), the performances were flawless. Who needs a backing band?

“We’re not gonna leave it 11 years before we come back,” Russell reassured fans at the end of the show. “We have a plan,” he added slyly. For fans’ sake, let’s hope that plan brings them around a lot more often.

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