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By MICHAEL DOHERTY
It was a night of fun, quirky music by two groups with duos at their cores — first, They Might Be Giants, led by John Flansburgh and John Linnell, and then Sparks, led by brothers Russell and Ronald Mael. Both bands have been around for decades (combined they’ve released 48 full-lengths), both have had documentaries made about them, and both deliver delightful original music with unusual lyrical content. These are bands that are determined to keep things interesting, to keep things fun, and they did so on Sunday night at the Hollywood Bowl.
They Might Be Giants kicked off the night promptly at 7:30 with “Damn Good Times,” a song from 2004’s “The Spine,” and one whose title told the audience exactly what they were in for. Before that first song was over, Flansburgh joked, “All right, that’s it for us, thank you so much for coming out,” setting a light, fun tone. He then joked about “Synopsis For Latecomers” being from the band’s “Grammy-losing album,” 2021’s “Book.”
And, yes, people were still filing into the venue during this aptly chosen song, while the horn section marched to the front of the stage. The band did some of their most popular numbers, including “Birdhouse In Your Soul” (which got the crowd to its feet), “Particle Man” (which included a bit of Sun Ra’s “Rocket Number Nine Take Off for the Planet Venus”), “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” (which included a fantastic trumpet solo), and “Don’t Let’s Start” (which closed out the set). But certainly a highlight of the set was “Spy,” a song from 1994’s “John Henry,” with its seriously cool sound. And during that wild section in the second half, first Linnell conducted the rest of the band, and then Flansburgh took over conducting, eventually adding the audience to his group of musicians, which was a wonderful moment. The band packed 13 songs into 46 minutes.
Sparks took the stage at 8:40 p.m., running on as a sort of fanfare played, then opened their set appropriately with “So May We Start,” a song from the movie “Annette,” which came out in 2021. And the audience at the Bowl started to come to life. Sparks followed that with “The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte,” the title track from the band’s new album, and then “Angst In My Pants,” the title track from the band’s 1982 album. Russell Mael told the audience that it was an absolute thrill to be there, and while bands tend to say these sorts of things wherever they may be, this time it rang true. Sparks is a Los Angeles band, and Russell Mael mentioned how their mother had taken them to see the Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl back in the mid-1960s, an experience that eventually led them to now performing on that stage. They would thank the crowd several more times throughout their set, and seemed to be enjoying themselves as much as the crowd was. A section of the crowd erupted in cheers as the band started “Beaver O’ Lindy,” a song from the band’s second album, one that kicks in with a tremendous and wonderful force. They followed that with “When I’m With You,” a fun number that found Russell dancing around the nearly perfectly still Ron at the keyboard.
From the new album, they also chose to play “Nothing Is At Good As They Say It Is” (one of the disc’s best tracks), “It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way,” “We Go Dancing” (which is like a song from a lost, twisted musical where joyful acts are performed on command), and “Gee, That Was Fun,” that last one closing out the set. And speaking of fun, Sparks also did the title track from 2000’s “Balls,” one of the set’s highlights. That was followed by “Shopping Mall Of Love,” with Ron getting up to deliver the vocals on this one. His line “She makes me laugh” had the audience laughing, in large part because of the serious, dry expression he maintained throughout most of the concert.
Another highlight was “Bon Voyage,” which was rather beautiful, particularly the vocal work. That was followed by “Music That You Can Dance To,” the audience cheering the second it began, dancing and clapping along. Another moment that brought the crowd together was “The Number One Song In Heaven,” when Ron got up to do his dance. And when they began “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both Of Us,” the crowd exploded. The band had everyone together then, one of those magical moments when an entire crowd is on the same page, experiencing the same joy.
For the encore, they played “My Baby’s Taking Me Home,” an odd song that is basically one line repeated, apart from that spoken word section in the second half, and then “All That,” during which many in the audience waved cell phones around like they were lighters. “Aw, that’s beautiful,” Russell said upon seeing it. And he and his brother were reluctant to leave the stage at the end, which became both endearing and comical, and made perfect sense to those in audience, who wished the night didn’t have to end.
They Might Be Giants setlist: Damn Good Times, Synopsis For Latecomers, Birdhouse In Your Soul, Particle Man, Moonbeam Rays, Ana Ng, Number Three, Brontosaurus, Spy, Istanbul (Not Constantinople), Doctor Worm, When Will You Die, Don’t Let’s Start
Sparks setlist: So May We Start, The Girl Is Crying In Her Latte, Angst In My Pants, Beaver O’ Lindy, When I’m With You, Nothing Is As Good As They Say It Is, It Doesn’t Have To Be That Way, Balls, Shopping Mall Of Love, We Go Dancing, Bon Voyage, Music That You Can Dance To, When Do I Get to Sing “My Way”, The Number One Song In Heaven, This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the Both Of Us, Gee, That Was Fun. Encore: My Baby’s Taking Me Home, All That
Photos by Stevo Rood / ARood Photo