Concert Review: They Might Be Giants. Friday, May 22, 2009 at the Beaumont Club

The Pitch, May 25, 2009
by Jason Harper

Sometimes, good clean fun is the way to go.

This Friday and Saturday, They Might Be Giants returned for their second annual Memorial-Day-in-KC-weekend jamboree, beginning (just like last year), with a show Friday night at the Beaumont and a spot the next afternoon at Jiggle Jam at Crown Center. For anyone at all familiar with the band, there was no question which show to attend. Word got out weeks before the show that on the Friday/Beaumont show, TMBG would be playing its 1990 masterpiece Flood in its entirety. That meant that, for folks like me -- who listened to that album obsessively when it came out, then hit puberty and laid aside Super Mario for Eddie Vedder -- Friday night was the TMBG show to see, period.

After a mellow, almost lullaby-like acoustic performance by former Belles frontman turned solo artist Chris Tolle, TMBG men John Flansburgh and John Linnell and their backing band (Marty Beller on drums, Danny Weinkauf on bass and Dan Miller guitar) walked on stage to wild cheering from the crowd of 500 or so overgrown children in the club, which was barely half full. The crowd got its money's worth, however, as TMBG, tight and polished as a mint-condition 1960s metal toy robot, played for about two hours, bouncing out nine assorted songs before launching into -- as Flansburgh put it -- "the slalom course that is Flood," and finishing with a few more.

This was one of the only Flood shows TMBG is playing this year, anywhere. To listen to Flansburgh, the Oliver Hardy of the core duo, this is because last year's shows were heavy on the newer stuff. "We've tried cheating the people of Kansas City out of a good time, and it did not work," he announced by way of self-deprecatingly introducing this special show. That may have been true, but was more likely Flansburgh just being totally keyed in on his audience's level. He even remarked on the improvements that have occurred to the Beaumont since his band's last visit. "It's like Joan-Rivers-different," he quipped.

As indicated above, I haven't followed this band's career since the early '90s, though, TMBG continually pops up in pop culture. Whether you're following their releases or not, things like their recurring appearances on This American Life, their scoring the theme songs and incidental music for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and Malcolm in the Middle (for which they won a Grammy) and collaborations with nerd laureates Dave Eggers and John Hodgman are just a few ways in which Linnell and Flansburgh have maintained their go-to status in quirky, geeky pop.

The opening salvo began with "Damn Good Times" from 2004's The Spine and provided a brief retrospective of the years since '90, with more recent classics like "Dr. Worm" and "Meet James Ensor," alongside the world-geography-indexing "Alphabet of Nations" and the one-two punch of "Why Does the Sun Shine (The Sun Is a Mass of Incandescent Gas)" and its more scientifically accurate, corrective counterpart "The Sun Is a Miasma of Incandescent Plasma." After hearing those last few for the first time, I understood why TMBG has been finding its calling of late in kids' music: this is the exact kind of stuff they've been writing all along, albeit with more specifically educational and less bizarre and abstract lyrics.

I was one of the folks screaming like a kid when, 45 minutes after the set's beginning, the first strains of "Theme From Flood" began, with the Johns asking "Why is the world in love again?" That segued beautifully -- just like on the record -- into massive hit "Birdhouse in Your Soul," a pop song so brilliant and catchy that the fact that it's nominally about a night light doesn't matter one whit. Kansas City-born trumpeter Stephen Molloy was brought out to lay down some muted Miles Davis licks before the band launched into "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," which, now that I think about it, is totally educational, because old New York totally was New Amsterdam when it was first founded.

The lyrics to the next song, "Dead," have always compelled and sort of frustrated me, from being reincarnated as a bag of groceries, to the large procession waving torches as the singer's head falls in the executioner's basket, to the chorus' poignant lyrical reversal: Now it's over I'm dead, and I haven't done anything that I want/Or I'm still alive and there's nothing I want to do. I actually texted that line to a friend and TMBG fan in New York, and, taken out of context, it somewhat scared her. She replied: "I get the reference, but this is a v. daunting text, Harper. Doin' okay?" So maybe there is hidden gravitas in TMBG's lyrics. The frustrating thing about the song is the detail in the first verse about an entire bag of groceries having a single expiration date:
I returned a bag of groceries
Accidently taken off the shelf
Before the expiration date
I came back as a bag of groceries
Accidently taken off the shelf
Before the date stamped on myself

How does that work, exactly? But I quibble; how can you complain about a song that also contains this majestic turn of phrase:

I didn't apologize
For when I was eight
And I made my younger brother
Have to be my personal slave

And so, as the show progressed through the almost note-for-note rendition of The Great Album, I realized that (a) TMBG's ace in the hole is the band's monster musical prowess and (b) yeah, this is nostalgically orgasmic, but I've been missing out on some great shit all these years.

My inner child has been underfed.