The vibe at FFS’s Oct. 15 tour finale at the Fox Theater in Oakland was equal parts warm and fuzzy. The fuzziness was provided by two furry friends on the terrace dance floor, one in full fox costume, the other in cat, who were spotted dancing, snapping photos and generally living their best lives amid the happy throng of Franz Ferdinand and Sparks fans. The warmth came from the way these two bands — one American, one Scottish; one with a career spanning over 40 years, one formed in 2002 — played together as a new entity on stage. There was genuine love and respect in the way Franz’s Alex Kapranos gave Sparks’ Russell Mael a thumbs up and a smile after Mael nailed the final operatic vocal flourishes of Sparks’ “This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us,” and in the bands’ final communal embraces after the rock-operetta, “Collaborations Don’t Work.”
Everything that works about FFS on their self-titled record — the joyful blending of two unorthodox, uncategorizable bands into one pop/rock/glam/disco/cabaret rarity — worked even better live. The brainy, self-effacing humor was evident from the moment FFS took the stage to the grandiosely cheesy theme from the British cult sci-fi series “Blake’s 7” to stand motionless while Ron Mael struck the plummy opening piano chords for “Johnny Delusional.” Then, Russell Mael, resplendent in a black and white striped poncho, and Kapranos, in a splatter-print disco shirt tucked into black trousers with a coy orange stripe up the inseam, began a display of the most awksome dancing I’ve ever witnessed on a stage.
But this wasn’t camp. This was a celebration of dancing to one’s own beautiful beat, and a heartfelt expression of two bands’ love for the same far-flung musical influences. It was as if this tour liberated Franz Ferdinand and Sparks from any expectations other than their own, and Kapranos and Russell used their considerable charm as frontmen to pull the audience along with them.
So, on a glitter-ball mash up of Sparks’ “When Do I Get to Sing My Way” and FFS’s “Call Girl,” the band gave us absolutely un-ironic old school disco, Franz’s Nick McCarthy chugging out Chic rhythm chords, while Kapranos did some swirling, hip-thrusting interpretive dancing that referenced both Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever” and David Bowie circa “Young Americans.” But on “Little Guy from the Suburbs,” the dramatic lighting, lush synthesizer tones and McCarthy’s twanging Spaghetti Western guitar solo placed Kapranos’ world-weary ballad of a failed terrorist into the realm of Leonard Cohen-meets-Lee Hazlewood. Then there was the candy-bright J-pop of “So Desu Ne,” made even giddier when four band members shared one keyboard, and an indelible image of Russell Mael and Kapranos bouncing up and down in unison (along with the audience) to the meaty, staccato rhythm of Franz’s “Take Me Out.”
Each song took us someplace new, in terms of style and sound, but instead of being dizzying, it was intoxicating. There’s a lot to be said for a band looking like its members are having the most fun they’ve ever had in their lives.
The emotional high point of the show was a transcendent performance of Sparks’ “The Number One Song in Heaven,” with McCarthy, Russell Mael and Kapranos lined up at the mikes, each dancing their own quirky moves, thrusting index fingers heavenward on the chorus. The lyrics are a kind of pop sermon on the mount, except delivering a reverse gospel that music shouldn’t be taken as The Word to remain eternally enshrined and unchanged: “The song filters down, down through the clouds/ It reaches the earth and winds all around/And then it breaks up in millions of ways.” Music is a gift for us mortals to use however we need it, whether that’s (to paraphrase the lyrics) as a hit tune, an advertising jingle or a child’s playtime taunt. Everything about the FFS project, from its “aw-hell, let’s do this” inception to the uninhibited triumph of the live show circles back to the idea in “Number One Song” that music is both universal and communal, yet deeply and thrillingly personal.
For the first opening act, FFS chose Carletta Sue Kay, the female persona of Bay Area performance artist Randy Walker, who stood center stage in a wig and an Angry Birds costume worn as a dress and blew the roof off. Then, for something completely different, came The Intelligence, a Seattle post-punk band. The diversity of the bill added to the one-big-pop-party atmosphere inside the Fox (the furries didn’t hurt, either), potently underscoring FFS’s vision of musical inclusiveness.
“Just think, a world ruled by weirdos,” was how my friend Charley Taylor affectionately summed up the FFS show he saw in Boston at the start of this short American tour. At the Fox, when Ron Mael stepped out from behind his iconic Ronald keyboard, shed his mask of dourness and burst into a grinning breakdance across the stage on “The Number One Song in Heaven,” you couldn’t help but grin along with him, grateful that, for this night at least, the weirdos won.
©Joyce Millman, The Mix Tape, 2015
It’s number one all over heaven