So, wait…did Sparks play in Milwaukee 40 years ago? The internet seems to think that they played Summerfest on July 3, 1983—almost 40 years eerily to the day. But I suppose we should forgive Russell Mael, the non-scowling half of Sparks’ youthfully septuagenarian brother duo, for saying, “I don’t know why in all our years we’ve never come to this town before”—he did follow it with “we’ll be back very soon,” so it’s clear they mean to make up for lost time. But the hell with the future, and the hell with the past. Sparks are timeless, and Sparks were right in front of us in the here and now just last night (which is technically now in the past, but work with me here) at The Pabst Theater! Holy shit!
— S P A R K S (@sparksofficial) July 6, 2023
Full disclosure: I’m one of those people that were definitely aware of Sparks for a good twenty-plus years, having been clued into them by the collaborative re-recording of “This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The Both Of Us” they did with Faith No More on 1997’s Plagiarism. Did I check out “Cool Places” because it was a duet with Jane Wiedlin? Yes indeed! Did my wife and I rock Kimono My House in a cabin on our honeymoon? Sure! But it was the release of Edgar Wright’s The Sparks Brothers documentary in 2021 that finally forced me further into their catalog, which was on glorious display Thursday night at the Pabst.
Those Mael boys really know how to put a set together: start it with, appropriately enough, “So May We Start,” from their 2021 Annette soundtrack; segue right into the title track of the latest release, The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte; pepper in some Greatest Hits (“Angst In My Pants,” “Balls”) while continuing to push the new album (“Nothing Is As Good As They Say It Is,” a song sung from “the perspective of a 22-hour old newborn baby who has decided they’ve seen enough and would like to go back,” was a highlight); eventually bring it on home with nonstop bangers (“When Do I Get To Sing ‘My Way,'” “The Number One Song In Heaven,” and the aforementioned “This Town” back to back to back? Hot damn!); and deliver said expertly assembled set with the exuberance of a band forty years younger—like a bunch of kids playing at Summerfest in 1983? Sure, maybe, why not?
Russell bopped around the stage like a debonair Tigger for the set’s entire 90-minute run time, and Ron…hot damn, let’s talk Ron. God damn, Ron is cool. The trademark scowl was in full force throughout, even when emerging from behind his keyboard to deliver some hilariously deadpan vocals in “Shopping Mall Of Love.” Did he manage to crack a smile at least while breaking into absurd vaudevillian dance during “Number One Song In Heaven?” I couldn’t tell—I was on the second level. But really, when it comes to Ron Mael, the dude is the Black Dynamite of operatic glam rock: you tell him to smile, and his response is probably, “I am smiling.” (Shout out to my friend K who attended the show with me and leaned over to say “there are Russell girls, and there are Ron girls, and I know which one I am.”)
That absurd scowl is a metaphor for Sparks’ music as a whole. This is a duo that has written some seriously bizarre and occasionally unnerving pop music—so simultaneously out there and infectious that you can get halfway through a song like “Balls” before remembering that this shit is also ridiculous. If a band is going to write a song called “Angst In My Pants,” they had damn well better commit to the bit, I suppose, and boy howdy do they. It’s anxious, it’s unnerving, it’s weirdly moving, it’s hilarious—it’s Sparks. Musically you could say that the set jumped effortlessly from their early glam period to their disco hits to their modern-day dance-pop synth jams, but to call them a cross-genre band would be a disservice. Sparks is their genre, and their genre is Sparks.
By the time the band closed out the evening with the double shot encore of “My Baby’s Taking Me Home” into “All That,” the Pabst faithful showered the band with multiple standing ovations and extended applause breaks, each time seeming to collectively exclaim “Holy shit, you’re here!” The love was certainly felt by the brothers Mael, who, again, seemed baffled by their own extended absence from our humble burg, promising to make up for lost time by returning sooner rather than later.
It’s heartwarming for even a casual Sparks fan such as myself to see the boys get this late-career victory lap, especially since it finally got them back here (or here for the first time, if Russell’s memory is sound). If recent strong releases like 2020’s A Steady Drip, Drip, Drip and this year’s Latte are any indication, they’re not slowing down any time soon, so here’s hoping they make good on their word and don’t take another 40 years to come back. (Look, I’ll be more surprised if they don’t make it another 40 than if they do. Sparks. Are. Timeless.)
— S P A R K S (@sparksofficial) July 7, 2023
xclusive articles, podcasts, and more. Support Milwaukee Record on Patreon.