Out and About: They Might Be Giants
    • MONDAY, MARCH 12, 2012

    • Posted by: Don Saas

    Unless we're talking about Bruce Springsteen, most artists cease to continue making relevant material when they've reached their 50s. We love U2 but they haven't made a great album since All That You Can't Leave Behind (2000) and let's not even start on A Bigger Bang from the Rolling Stones. Even the Boss is starting to slag if the mixed response to Wrecking Ball is any indication. It's not every day that a band is possibly making some of the best music of their entire career when they've been together for 30 years, but that may be the case for They Might Be Giants, one of the original alternative rock bands to take over college radio in the pre-grunge era. 2011's Join Us was perhaps their strongest release since 1990's seminal Flood, which is especially impressive considering the niche the band had made for itself releasing kid-friendly edutainment albums like the Grammy-winning Here Come the 123s. We had the chance to catch They Might Be Giants, alongside Jonathan Coulton of Portal fame, at Terminal 5 to a packed house, and we can only say that we hope we have this much energy, charisma, and pizazz when we're in our early 50s.

    Jonathan Coulton took the stage to start off the evening, and barring the resurrection of XTC, we can't imagine a more appropriate opener for the Johns (John Linnell and John Flansburgh from TMBG). Jonathan Coulton is perhaps most well-known for his single "Still Alive" which was just one of many aspects of the puzzle game Portal that made it the zeitgeist game of 2007 as well as his song "Code Monkey" which provides the theme for the cartoon Code Monkeys on the G4 game-centric television channel. While "Code Monkey"'s power pop is generally indicative of Coulton's sound, "Still Alive" as performed on the game's soundtrack (as opposed to its far more uptempo and rocking live rendition) is not as indicative of Coulton's musical style. With a mash-up of propulsive 90s power pop, occasional folk influences, and a witty and self-aware dorky lyricism, Coulton crafted instant sing-alongs even if the audience only seemed to initially know "Still Alive."

    With songs whose topics ranged from what it would be like to be Pluto's moon trying to cheer up Pluto after being downgraded to a "dwarf planet" ("I'm Your Moon"), a memo from a zombie to his former co-workers about how he's going to eat his brains ("Re: Your Brains"), and a man who may or may not be Rick Springfield trying to convince women in a French bar that he is in fact Rick Springfield sung entirely in French ("Je Suis Rick Springfield"), Coulton was able to marry his deadpan wit and ear for catchy hook-filled verses with well-constructed pure power-pop that recalled Barenaked Ladies and Smash Mouth's nerdy bastard child. The fact that he had a better singing voice than either of the John's only sweetened the deal (not that anyone listens to TMBG for the John's vocal prowess). All in all, Jonathan Coulton occupied the stage for a fraction of the time of TMBG's epic set but when the show was over, he was getting as much buzz as the three decade veterans (it didn't hurt that his stage banter was gut-bustingly hilarious).

    Despite how impressive Jonathan Coulton was, everyone was there for They Might Be Giants, whose quirky and irreverent music has been a mainstay of hipster parents (who made a large portion of the crowd which seemed split right down the middle of people who were in college when Flood came out and younger adults who discovered TMBG long after they had become college rock mainstays) for three decades. John Linnell and John Flansburgh are the two core and original members of the band but they were backed up onstage with longtime band members Dan Miller on lead guitar, Marty Beller on drums, and Danny Weinkauf on bass. John Flansburgh played rhythm guitar and sang, and John Linnell was a true multi-instrumentalist taking turns at the keyboard, the accordion, the bass clarinet, as well as sharing main vocal duties with Flansburgh. Add in a puppet show (involving a Black Sabbath cover!), an audience game of "people vs. apes" regular humorous interludes that could have qualified as lite stand-up, and TMBG's show was as much performance art as a regular concert.

    Opening with the band's highest-charting single, "Birdhouse in Your Soul," from Flood, They Might Be Giants did a phenomenal job of playing stand-out tracks from their last LP, Join Us, as well as established TMBG fan favorites. TMBG has an impressively loyal cult following and even the newer songs were being bellowed back at the band on practically every song. TMBG's ironic and self-aware wit belie an impressive mastery of their craft from a technical and instrumental perspective, and John Linnell knows how to craft a catchy melody like no one else (even when the lyrics are often much darker than the uptempo melody suggests). After covering so many shows at smaller NY venues for newer, less-established bands, it never ceased to stop being impressive to see an audience of 3000 people sing along to an entire two hour set. Whether it was classics like "Ana Ng" and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" or newer songs like "Can't Keep Johnny Down" or "When Will You Die" this crowd of TMBG die-hards ate up every second of the show.

    This was the last show on their current tour, but it's no secret that the Johns aren't going anywhere (and they alluded to an upcoming free show at a library in Princeton, NJ), so we can't recommend catching their show enough. Even though they're getting older, the Johns stilll owned that stage better than acts half their age (and the trumpet player, Max Pender, on this tour was phenomenal). The only noticeably seminal track from their library that didn't get played at some point during the show was "My Racist Friend" so if there's a favorite TMBG song you want to hear, there's a very high chance they'll play it at the show. After not one but two encores of two songs each, everyone was sad to leave Terminal 5 even after a set that stretched on for two hours. When so much music these days forgets what it means to be fun, They Might Be Giants was an irreverent breath of fresh air.

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