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Not many bands can claim they’re having the best year of their career exactly 50 years into their run. All right — not any bands can make such a claim, historically, except for Sparks, which saw its star rise dramatically in 2021 due not to any recording or touring activity but as film creators and stars, with “Annette” and “The Sparks Brothers,” respectively. A resumption of the sibling duo’s day job was destined to be quite the victory lap, and the Mael brothers got off to quite a sprinting start in that regard with a rousingly celebratory homecoming show Monday night at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, a town that is definitely big enough for both nights of a two-night stand that sold out instantaneously last fall.

“What’s it gonna be? A symphony tonight?” asked singer Russell Mael in reciting the vaunted lyrics of “Music That You Can Dance To,” a rhetorical question to which the answer is no, although it wasn’t completely clear when Sparks booked Disney Hall last year for this one-off two-nighter whether it might involve strings, as so many shows by slumming rockers at the formal venue do (including Damon Alborn’s recent headlining appearance). When Sparks played their last big downtown L.A. show, at the Theatre at Ace Hotel in 2015, it was with a 38-piece orchestra. Moving into the home of the L.A. Philharmonic in 2022? Just a straight-up show with their five-piece band, no frills. Well, there was one bell and literal set of whistles, actually: Ron Mael opened the 115-minute set by playing “The Number One Song in Heaven” on the pipe organ that looms over the hall from a nearly heavenly loft, like a phantom of the Phil. From there on, they classed down the joint a little, about as much as any audience members who signed on when Sparks were kings of “the ROQ of the ’80s” might’ve hoped.

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Sparks’ Ron Mael on the organ at Walt Disney Concert Hall Dustin Downing on behalf of the LA Phil

Even when Sparks is rocking out, though, theres a sense that they come from a rarefied world in which a love for classics even older than classic rock might be what informs the Maels. For this appearance, apparently for the first time ever in concert, the brothers played their recent song “Stravinsky’s Only Hit,” with Russell noting that plenty of Igor had preceded them on this particular stage. He didn’t get too much into the meaning of the song, beyond indicating that Ron wrote it about a real outlier tune of Stravinsky’s. “Look it up on Wikipedia,” he suggested; just such a search indicates that the mustachioed Mael was inspired to write the ode to being a brilliant commercial one-hit wonder by “The Rite of Spring.”

The Maels have reason to relate to that theme. But which song of theirs is the “one” hit? Therein lies the rub, and some of the fun of Sparks’ career, as explored in Edgar Wright’s documentary last year. “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us,” their glam-rock-coinciding 1974 breakout smash in Europe, is destined to be the climactic moment of any show Sparks ever does, even if they soldier on for another 50 years. (It served that purpose at Disney Hall, even if it was placed in penultimate set position and immediately followed by the equally frantic, equally vintage “Amateur Hour.”) But in many countries, their one true smash was the Giorgio Moroder-produced “The Number One Song in Heaven” (which did get a proper, full-band run-through well after Ron’s pipe-organ tease). In Los Angeles, where they were never bigger than during the great synth-pop scare of the ’80s, “Angst in My Pants” might be assumed to be their true signature song. With 25 albums in their catalog and about as many mini-peaks, there are a lot of years to reel though in one 23-song set.

But 2022 sees the advent of a very fresh certainty in their setlists, one you have to assume they’ll go with for the rest of their career: “So May We Start” as a completely inevitable show-opener. The “Annette” song may not have gotten an Oscar nomination Tuesday morning (after appearing on the Academy’s initial shortlist of 15), but its almost-literal lyrical curtain-raising was an ingenious way to start the Leos Carax movie musical, and it makes every bit as effective of an opener for a Sparks show: “So close all the doors and let’s begin the show / The exits are clearly marked, thought you should know /The authors are here so let’s not show disdain / The authors are here and they’re a little vain” — with the music stopping to quietly repeat the line, “a little vain,” as Ron raises his hand from his keyboard to stroke his chin, his way of miming solipsism.

From that point on, Sparks’ show was, as it always is, a chance to study the Maels’ very contrasting performance personalities, as one part of the path toward determining what makes them so damn funny, except when they’re not. (Of course not everyone finds any of their work especially amusing; Variety’s divided critics have offered up a contrary, unamused take in sympathy with anyone who saw Wright’s movie and did not come out a convert.) As a sort-of very dry comedy team, there’s a bit of a Cyrano thing happening with Sparks, with Russell as the exuberant channeler of what we might imagine the nearly motionless Ron is thinking — except its’s some sort of anxiety, a lot more than romanticism, that the singer is boldly and cheerfully exclaiming in nearly operatic octaves. (The angst is hardly confined to pants.) Ron comes to center stage at a couple of points in the show, once for a deadpan recitation, one for the vaudeville-style dance routine that never fails to be a little comically shocking in the middle of “Number One Song” … and then he meekly reinserts the rod up his behind, as it were, and takes his deliberately stiff place back behind the keyboard. They’re a little like some of the classic comedy duos of old, except a classic comedy duo that doesn’t hate each other. Maybe part of becoming a truly holistic person is learning how to embrace both your inner Maels.

 

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Sparks’ Russell Mael sings at Walt Disney Concert Hall Dustin Downing on behalf of the LA Phil

 

Attention must be paid to just how effectively Russell still gets into those upper octaves, in his early 70s, to a spookily undiminished degree, while also still doing about as much skipping and jumping up and down in place as the stately Disney Hall stage allows. (Would Freddie Mercury still be hitting those notes if he’d survived this long, as the other dog-whistle great of the rock ‘n’ roll 1970s? We can only wonder, and wish.) Suffice it to say that anyone planning on attending the Sparks tour that officially begins March 11 in San Francisco need not worry they might be getting any kind of time-compromised version of the group. Russell cut quite the dashing figure Monday, in a formal jacket with fancy brooch (possibly of the Hello Kitty variety) on top, and bright chartreuse pants and fluorescent sneakers below — looking like someone who hadn’t quite figured out whether he was going out for dinner on the Riviera or going out for a very fashionable late-night jog.

As well honed as their performance skills and shtick are after 51 years, it’s really the material that’s the thing, anyway. And the Maels are among the great wits of rock for how, as silly as the songs can get, there’s usually (not always) a real emotional undertow to the work. They can get dead-serious, though they rarely do — the rarity of it being what made some fans a little bit unprepared for just how grim their “Annette” screenplay and song score got. There are no laughs in the other “Annette” song they performed Monday, “We Love Each Other So Much,” a romantic ballad that promises impending tragedy with every note. And the tune they chose to end the encore with, “All That,” another recent song getting its live debut, is surprisingly romantic, and poignant, in a tongue-out-of-cheek way. It’s the potential to at least occasionally veer away from whimsy that makes the comical stuff work so well. Like the Ray Davies of the late ’60s, it’s drollery with some heart to it, if not existential panic.

And, perhaps unlike the Kinks in their “Village Green Preservation Society” heyday, it often really is music that you can dance to, as the often on-its-feet front section of Disney Hall would attest. “Deadpan” isn’t really an adjective you’d want to place on too many rock ‘n” roll acts as a compliment, but the gloriousness with which Sparks has employed that quality, and still left room for bopping and bathos, is part of why the group’s completely idiosyncratic half-century run hasn’t exhausted our attention yet… even those of us who caught on decades before Edgar Wright (who flew in from London for this occasion) began his evangelistic mission.

One of the songs Sparks performed at Disney Hall was a typically half-downtrodden, half-hilarious, latter-day classic “When Do I Get to Sing ‘My Way’?” The answer to the musical question posed in that title is: they already are.