The alternative rock explosion of the mid-1980s, bolstered by then-booming college radio stations, produced plenty of acts that showed the promise of true staying power. Surveying the scene decades later, however, most have either burned out spectacularly, faded into obscurity or, perhaps worse, are irrevocably stuck in the nostalgia circuit. Interestingly, many of those that have stayed around and remained active were originally the oddballs and outcasts, deemed to be unmarketable longshots by the conventional wisdom of contemporary A&R people, and there are few better examples than They Might Be Giants. Two nerdy guys named John--setting out armed with little more than nasally voices and an accordion--somehow managed to turn their quirky artistic vision into lasting international success which, as demonstrated by Friday’s performance at the Pabst Theater, seems largely thanks to their irrepressible sense of humor.
That devotion to musical mischief comes through in the title of their 20th studio album, I Like Fun, that the pair pulled into town to promote sans warm-up act (in a perfect world, this would be standard practice; honestly, how often do openers for big tours feel like anything other than a favor for some promoter or another?). The crowd didn’t need any additional entertainment to get them going, and when the stage exploded with swirling spotlights and cheesy game show-style intro music, they really let loose. When John Flansburgh and John Linnell, accompanied by a skilled backing band, sarcastically kicked things off with the latest record’s lead-off track "Let’s Get This Over With" the applause lasted well into the song.
After a few more new numbers, and plenty of ingratiating between-tune banter, which eventually touched on everything from the infamous 1992 stage collapse at the Modjeska Theater to obsessing over the Bronze Fonz (and was all delivered with the natural timing of a seasoned comedy duo), they explained the concept behind this tour’s setlist. As they put it, fans tend to dread new material from familiar faces, so they decided to split the proceedings in two--the first segment largely getting the necessary hype out of the way; the second being a dive into their catalogue for deep cuts and fan favorites. Despite the self-deprecating jokes about long-established acts’ obligatory new albums, though, the first set offered plenty of highlights, including standouts from the new release and, most memorably, their viral cover of Destiny’s Child’s "Bills, Bills, Bills."
Even though the crowd clearly enjoyed the recent material, one or two waving vinyl copies eagerly awaiting autographs, the second set, as promised, offered the kind of fan-service that really kicked things up a notch, and which, over the years, has steadily nourished their cultish following. Included among the assortment of hits and B-sides were staples like "Particle Man," "Istanbul" and "Birdhouse in Your Soul," as well as obscure detours like "The Guitar"--their reimagining of the ubiquitous sing-along "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." Taking the idea of this being a throwback set to the extreme; they even busted out a surprisingly rocking tribute to "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too," inarguably the biggest hit of the 1840 U.S. presidential election. When they first emerged, few took TMBG seriously. Thirty-some years later, it’s refreshing to see they still don’t take themselves too seriously, either.