The Dwarf, November 7, 2015
As I discovered to my unbridled delight on Saturday night, 'They Might Be Giants' (TMBG) in concert is not for the faint-hearted... it's an unstoppable visual and aural juggernaut that at once both potently disorients the viewer and offers the closest I have ever heard to a sonically kaleidoscopic experience.
From a creative perspective, TMBG are essentially made up of The Two Johns: John Linnell and John Flansburgh who are certainly two of Brooklyn's favourite sons. TMBG are a creative tour-de-force: two guys who, from the day they first met in school, have been driven to constantly create--a fact poignantly validated by their immense back catalogue--this tiny partnership has spawned 17 studio albums, 14 compilations, 7 live albums and 18 Eps, not to mention their infamous 'Dial-A-Song' phone service where they record and post new songs EVERY WEEK.
These two modest gents share a creative prolificacy in songwriting matched by very few, and tonight a packed out Forum Theatre are here to celebrate just that.
Those I speak to in the foyer before the show are loyally effusive in their adoration for these guys and their quirky geek rock--many agree from personal experience that having once seen a show, they are bitten by the bug and NEVER miss another opportunity to get along and see the guys every time they swing through town.
The trade at the merchandise stall is brisk as punters seize the opportunity to snap up the duo's latest 2015 release 'Glean' (which as an Australian exclusive features the complete live recording of 'Flood' during their last extended residency at the Corner Hotel in 2013 on a bonus disk). Some choose to broaden their wardrobe with cool t-shirt design or two. The free 'Dial-A-Song' stickers are a big hit too.
The Forum is already packed to the rafters as five shadowy figures take their places in front of a giant video screen that projects the bands live performance upside down AND back to front. TMBG tonight are a feisty fivesome with John Flansburgh (on guitar and vocals), John Linnell (on keys, accordion, woodwinds and vocals), Dan Miller, (on lead guitar, keyboards and vocals), Danny Weinkauf, (on bass) and Marty Beller, (on drums and backing vocals).
They Might Be Giants
We hear an amusing conversation accidentally recorded on the groups infamous 'Dial A Song' service answer machine: the woman in question apparently can't quite explain to her husband what or who a 'They Might Giants' is... or how they can make money off of this thing...
As the answer machine message plays out, the show proper kicks in with a fiery 'Can't Keep Johnny Down' from 2011's 'Join Us'. The vibe is definitely up tonight and so is Flansburgh as he stands atop the drum riser willing Marty, the drummer, on... He's then jumping down and darting over to check all is good with Dan Miller in lead guitar land. No such stage antics from Linnell, who by comparison is fairly tied to the keyboards--Dan the bassist has his sensible shoes on for the night - his bouncy Doc Martens, and is pogo-ing on the spot. The boys are fired up for the final show of the leg.
Music Jail, Parts 1 & 2 from 2015's 'Glean' is next--a song that started it's life as part of the Dial-A-Song experiment. It's rollickingly irreverent with plenty of false starts and stops which wrong foot a few of the audience who are pogo-ing along as well.
Flansburgh is the band's resident spruiker for tonight: "Good Evening Ladies and Gentlemen! We're 'They Might Be Giants' from Brooklyn, New York...! We need to see a sea of hands people! A sea of hands...! Hey! We've come from the other side of the world everyone, and yet we speak the same common language of disappointment in the quality of rock shows! Last night we were performing in Sydney and we performed the SECOND best show of our entire careers, and for the entire night all we were thinking was--"How can we create a time machine to bring us here tonight?"...where we can perform the BEST show of our career, Ladies and Gentlemen! We are going to be giving it between 80% to 85% all night long... expect no less! Bet on no more! How's everybody doing? (Screams) That's good... because we're super fucked up!"
Those punters who wisely snapped up a 'Mesopotamians' tshirt on previous TMBG sojourns are thrilled when the next song up turns out to be their very own... 'The Mesopotamians' from 2007's 'The Else'... Linnell introduces it as 'a song about an ancient Near-Eastern rock group that I hallucinated about as an 8 year old. This is their theme song.." I'm really impressed. Not only does this song contain some of the hardest ever names to pronounce--let alone sing, the harmonies and multiple vocal parts are spot on.
"Driving our Econoline van (And no one's ever heard of our band)
And no one's ever heard of our band
We're the Mesopotamians
Sargon, Hammurabi, Ashurbanipal, and Gilgamesh
Then they wouldn't understand a word we say
So we'll scratch it all down into the clay
Half believing there will sometime come a day
Someone gives a damn
Maybe when the concrete has crumbled to sand
We're the Mesopotamians
Sargon, Hammurabi, Ashurbanipal, and Gilgamesh"
From the high of that, it's headlong into 'Particle Man' from 1990's beloved 'Flood'. Linnell trades keys for his trademark accordion and it's bonafide jig time. This song segues effortlessly into 'Damn Good Times' from 2004's 'The Spine'. Dan on lead takes the reigns at the songs end and cranks this into a heady breakneck spiral that accelerates tempo until pretty much no one else in the band can keep up.
A similarly frantic tempo is maintained for 'When Will You Die' from 2011's 'Join Us'. Flansburgh confesses at the end: "I'm so grateful for those rehearsals... Man, that song was fast, I was actually running out of fingers on that one"
The obscure 'We Live in a Dump' from 2004's 'The Else' follows and then Flansburgh invites the photographers who are still in the pit to come up on stage and take a reverse angle shot that they can take home to show their wives... "Sea of Hands People! Thanks Guys... Dream come true!"
And then it's back to business..."Well, this is the moment I've all be waiting for ladies and Gentlemen. This next song was written by 14 people, it's off the first Destiny's Child album and its the beginning of the Destiny's Child portion of the show... "
The hilarious irreverent take on Destiny's Child's 'Bills, Bills, Bills' (with appropriately altered lyrics) ensues.
Because of the sheer number of tracks on the setlist, there's no mucking around between songs for these guys. It's straight into 'Rhythm Section Want Ad' from 1986's 'They Might Be Giants' which features a blistering mid section with superb guitar solo by Dan.
It's then time to spruik more new offspring from the 'Dial a Song' project that spawned most of the tracks from 'Glean'. This next one is 'Answer'
'Authenticity Trip' from 2011's 'Album Raises New and Troubling Questions' covers compilation follows. The alternating lighting from opposite sides of the stage coupled with the 'projections on projections on projections' of the band works brilliantly and my head begins to spin a little at the almost stroboscopic effect as the tempo of the song quickens up.
The only track from 2001's 'Mink Car' to be featured tonight, 'Man, It's So Loud In Here' is up next and meets with rapturous applause. We've barely got over that and we're into a third cut from 2015's 'Glean'. It's 'Erase' and is a cracker of a tune live. I can't help thinking that perhaps the two Johns must have been one of the few fans of Bowie's Tin Machine, because the song features a section that is vaguely reminiscent of the intro to 'Baby Universal'. Have a listen and see if you can pick the similarity.
"The next song was written by two men named J. Kennedy and P. Simon,... we're thinking John Kennedy and Paul Simon... but I think we're thinking Paul Simon the former Senator from Illinois, because that would be exactly like him to write this next song--and John Kennedy, the guy we went to Junior High with... or John Kennedy O'Toole who wrote 'The Confederacy of Nazis'..."
After eventually confessing they really had no idea what the first names were of those two who originally wrote it, the two John's launch into a gorgeous acoustic interpretation of one of their most loved songs, 'Istanbul (Not Constantinople)' from 1990's 'Flood'
The first set concluded with an astounding version of 'Fingertips' from 1991's 'Apollo 18' which blew me away... Later in the evening when talking to a TMBG 'factologist' in the foyer I discovered a little trivia about the track... The song "Fingertips" actually comprises 21 separate tracks — short snippets that not only acted together to make the song, but the guys wrote it to be mastered in such a way so that when punters played the cd on 'random' those song fragments would be interspersed between the 'Apollo 18' album's full-length songs. Due to mastering errors, the Australian version of Apollo 18 contained "Fingertips" as one track! Kind of lucky for us that that's the way we hear it tonight. As one piece, it's quite an impressive show of virtuosity from all five on stage.
After a 10 minute break the band are back to smash out the second set and they begin with a cover of the Cubs song, 'New York City' which featured a very Steve Nieve (from Elvis Costello's 'Attractions') style organ sound. This is followed swiftly by the classic 'Ana Ng' from 1998's 'Lincoln'. As the band let rip with the first few power chords, the crowd erupts and there is plenty of cheering and jumping about.. Such a classic sound.
More Dial A Song... this time it's 'Let Me Tell You About My Operation' from 2015's 'Glean' with some more sterling guitar breaks from Dan and honky tonk piano from Linnell. Basically it's an opportunity for the band to show off their licks. Fantastic drums on this one too.
Then it's back to TMBG's second album 'Lincoln' for a version of 'Where Your Eyes Don't Go'. The song requires some high backing vocals but to my surprise Flansburgh effortlessly nails the high parts.
The hits just keep coming now... it's the glorious 'Number Three' from 1986's 'They Might Be Giants'... The crowd instantly responds and it's a country hoe-down clap-along.
The slower 'Careful What You Pack' from 2004's 'The Else' follows which by comparison to the vibe of the previous song seems to come over a little subdued.
All that is quickly resolved when they pull out another accordion song... the stellar 'The Statue Got Me High' from 1991's 'Apollo 18' and once more the place is jumping.
'Withered Hope' from 2004's 'The Else' showcases Linnell's superb keyboard runs and it morphs into a monster of a song with brilliant fills by all the band, especially the bass player.
Next is 'Black Ops' from 2013's 'Nanobots' where Linnell trades his keyboard for the bass clarinet and plays energetic duelling parts with both Dan and John the guitarists.
Linnell opts to keep the clarinet for the next song...It's quirk central as they embark on a cover of a Jonathan Richman track, 'I Was Dancing In The Lesbian Bar'
"This is a song about the 11th President of the United States whose name is revealed to you in the song... It would be redundant for me to tell you right now the name of the guy which is the title of the song we're about to play." It turns out it's 'James K. Polk' from 1996's 'Factory Showroom'. A few diehards down the front seem to recognise the song, but for many here, topically it's akin to playing a song about Pauline Hanson in Florida and expecting audience buy in. The song is a kicker though, and by the halfway mark, the floor is bouncing along.
Then it's time for probably the most endearing song of the evening: It's 'Robot Parade' from 2002's 'No' with it's very childlike lyrics and instrumentation.
'In a future time
Children will work together
To build a giant cyborg
Robot parade, robot parade
Wave the flags that the robots made
Robot parade, robot parade
Robots obey what the children say
There's electric cars
There's electric trains
Here comes a robot with electric brains'
Halfway through this fabulous song, Flansburgh intones through a heavily treated microphone: "People! It's time for a human experiment... we're gonna form a human theramin... a theramin... OK, here we go... start low, end high, don't stop... here we go!" Crowd participation is infectious and everyone gets into the spirit... at least, they do the second time Flansburgh jibes, "I'm calling Bullshit on your bullshit, now do it again... start low, end high, don't stop... here we go!"
During the next song, at times Linnell is completely drowned out by the audience singing along... It's 'Older' from 1999's 'Long Tall Weekend' and then it's time for the final song of the second set.
No prizes for guessing it's 'Birdhouse in Your Soul' from 1990's 'Flood' It's a joyous celebration and is over way too soon!
The boys disappear for a few minutes and then reappear for tonight's encore of two songs.
It's pedal to the metal time as they rip through the perennial favourite 'Twisting' from 'Flood' and then follow it up with the iconic 'Doctor Worm' from 1998's 'Severe Tire Damage'.
Again, the singalong from the Forum crowd is mighty and a just send off to a band who, although they've just ripped through thirty plus songs in a little under two hours--without seeming to draw breath--look like they might be giants and come back and go another few rounds easily. Alas, it is not to be and we wander out into the cool Melbourne night musing on the spectacle we have just witnessed. Everyone is smiling and no-one seems disappointed.
I manage to secure a handwritten photocopied setlist and opt to head up to the stage door and patiently wait. There are only two others and we chat to the friendly security guard until Linnell emerges. His body language says it all... he's exhausted and done for the night so apart from complimenting him on the show, nobody opts to bother him. When Flansburgh appears it is an entirely different story. He kindly poses for pics and as I bend over to offer him my back as a surface to sign the setlist on, he says, "No, no...stand up...always dignity!"... it isn't until I get home I discover he has signed my final leg of the down under tour setlist, quite appropriately, UPSIDE DOWN! A brilliant night out, and true to the diehards in the lobby pre-show I think I've been bitten by the TMBG bug... My advice is if you ever get an opportunity to see They Might Be Giants play a show in the future, make sure you grab it with both hands. It may not be perfect... but it'll be perfect for you!