Going to concerts at Royce Hall always feels like going to a football game: you park in a random UCLA lot, then walk half a mile across campus in the hopes of seeing a winner. But Valentine’s Day night, as my best gal and I hoofed it past deserted science labs in the direction of a gathering throng of lanky people in their woolen best, most paired up and holding hands, I felt like we were approaching something less collegiate and more magical, almost like a quiddich match.
Local celebrities, all arriving at the last minute, flanked the ticket counter (well, more of a folding table) as we arrived: Howie Pyro, director Dave Markey, Jeff McDonald, and Kevin Lee (of Seksu Roba/Yo Gabba Gabba fame) all seemed to be scrambling about trying to find their seats before curtain call. Inside, more fabulous patrons, including members of the Seeds, the Centimeters, Insect Surfers, and Electrocute, hunkered down in the vast Siberia of the hall’s back back back seats—and in the front seats, there was a buzz of excited fandom coming from the half dozen or so gals who’d come dressed up in kimonos of their own. It was an older crowd by rock standards, but we were acting like giddy schoolgirls. Young pimply ushers with long hair looked extremely nervous as they stood watch, like they were worried one of us would break a hip.
The first set was slated to be Sparks’ newest album, Exotic Creatures of the Deep, performed in its entirety. I feared I might be missing something by never having heard it prior to the show. Never fear—each song came with a thematically appropriate flash animation projected onto a giant white screen behind Russell Mael’s head. What with the moving illustrations, plus Russell’s crystal-clear diction, and the pantomime-gyrations of dancing girls dressed in what I can only call “indie-rock Robert Palmer” dress shirts and glasses, it made for an easily understood musical extravaganza.
The semi-celebrity backing band, each member framed literally by a doorway-sized portrait frame, played great too, though it was funny seeing Steve McDonald on bass guitar quickly lose his poker face as he lapsed into his rock shuffle and started grinning. But obviously this is fun music, and they were having fun while still managing something I did not expect—belting out pitch-perfect five part harmonies, very much like Smile-era Beach Boys, but with more programmed beats. Sure, Russell had the echo cranked up on his voice to give back what the years had taken away, and Ron clearly was not even playing keyboards on a lot of the songs, but what’s new? Think of it not as trickery, but as stagecraft to allow Ron, his own poker face never relaxing, to scold a video chimp during “Let the Monkey Drive” or try desperately to find the keys on a continually be-cropped two-dimensional piano during “Photoshop.”
During intermission, as we tossed back surprisingly delicious $7 cabernets as fast as possible, everyone seemed enervated about the songs we’d just heard, but a little worried about whether the strain apparent in Russell’s voice would allow him to do justice to the next set: Kimono My House, also played in its entirety. The vocals on the album could easily be called gymnastic, and while a young, vibrant Russell had shimmied his way right through them, would it be the same for a guy pushing sixty?
Well, goddam it, it wasn’t the same, but it was pretty darn close, and pretty amazing considering how hard it must have been for him to protect his falsetto through decades of musical style-changes. After the song was over, he confessed aloud how weird it was to start a set with it, since “we usually close with that song… in the KROQ days we’d try to put some older songs into the sets, and the audiences would kind of scratch their heads.” No chance of that here—fans were dancing in the aisles, dancing with each other, and my own girlfriend was going nuts dancing by herself, as each song was played better than the last, and such voice-stretching falsettos as the waltz-dirge “Falling in Love with Myself Again” made us step outside of the seventies entirely, and feel like Smokey Robinson was singing for Faith No More.
Sparks showed us how timeless their music really is. Though they’ve made lots of changes behind the scenes since 1968, there is a certain smart-aleck sameness to every album, something like the consistency the Ramones carried even through their Phil Spector, Animal Boy, and “Pet Sematary” periods. I wondered how different a Sparks performance at the Santa Monica Civic Center in 1974 would have been to their Royce Hall performance. Surely this night’s amazing, pitch-perfect rendition of “Equator” would have been hard to top even then.
But best of all was the “encore,” a planned finale that consisted of about a bazillion more songs from the entirety of the Sparks oevre, from Deco to disco and back again. Though I didn’t hear a single tune from my personal favorite, A Woofer in Tweeter’s Clothing, it was still thrilling to hear so many different styles back to back by the same band. Clearly the time spent last year doing 21 albums in 21 days had made every chop in those musical bodies leaner.
The biggest surprise was their disco songs. Supposedly when Sparks went disco, whole bands such as the Quick and the Mumps sprang up in the states to take over the sparkin’ baton that Ron and Russell had dropped by gettin’ all Moroder on us. But from a historical perspective, songs such as “The Number One Song in Heaven” were even more timeless and tasteful than much of that era’s Salsoul excesses, and clearly predicted everything from the Pet Shop Boys to “Heart of Glass” to St. Etienne to the Jesus and Mary Chain’s Honey’s Dead, and lots of other modern acts far too obvious to name.
It was an enjoyable, smashing, and somewhat exhausting set. But just as we were feeling like maybe we were getting too old because it was getting too loud, things wound down with a fantastic roar, and a whoosh of rockers poured out onto the somber UCLA cement steps. We all attached Sparks buttons to the lapels of our dates, like corsages, and skipped off into the waning hours of Valentine’s Night, grinning like a family of fans whose hometown heroes had just made good.