LiveDC: They Might Be Giants @ 9:30 Club

Brightest Young Things, November 30, 2009
by Cale

Driving home from the sold out They Might Be Giants show at 9:30 Club I realized why this band was so special to me.  In the early 90s as a kid living in the South I didn’t have access to much weird music.  For some reason this strange band made it on to a major label and network TV.  I could buy their tapes at the local Sam Goody and order their CDs from BMG.  For those of us not interested in the mainstream, before we even knew we weren’t interested in the mainstream, TMBG was there for us.  That’s my reason, but for 27 years TMBG has been gaining new cult followings with their own reasons.  They seem to constantly be adding new demographics and niche audiences throughout different point in their career with their unique brand of nerd rock.  Which makes for an interesting crowd.  You have old skool college radio and Ana Ng fans, you have youngsters who have now graduated to the later “14 and over adult show” instead of the earlier kids show,  you have Malcolm in the Middle, Tiny Toons, and Dr. Worm fans,  you have the early eMusic adopters,  you have the church-camp dance along fans, you have your families, hipsters, astronomers, ravers, gamers, zit pickers, geeks, dweebs, various wads, and dorks.  God, so many dorks.  Dorks lined up before the doors even opened, all the way to those old gas pumps around the corner.

I’m guessing I’ve seen TMBG live 10 times now.  I keep going back for more because these guys consistently put their all into every show.  Even after almost 3 decades they’re still coming up with silly new ideas and creative antics for their live performances.  I couldn’t help but think of the Pixies reunion shows coming up in the next few days and how they just get on stage, hate each other, and blast through the setlist and collect the check at the end of the night.  TMBG try way harder than they have to.

The band took the stage, founding member John Linnell (the skinny one) on keyboards, effects pads, and accordian and founding member John Flansburg (the chubby one) on guitar.  Both Johns sing, but the way to tell the difference is Linnell has the nasally voice while Flansburgh has the nasally voice.  Then we had long time bassist Dan Weinkauf, long time guitarist Danny Weinkauf, and Dan Hickey’s replacement, drummer Marty Bellar. They also had a 3-piece horn section, the Tricerichops… or something, Flansey kept getting it wrong, which was a nice touch.  They opened with Meet the Elements, a track off their new kids album Here Comes Science.  The fact that a sold out crowd of “adults” ate up a number of songs from this album during the night either says something about the type or people who go to TMBG shows or the quality of their children’s records.  I think it’s a little of both.

Then came Subliminal off their first “full band” album.  In the mid-90s, the two John’s fleshed out their records and shows with a rotating cast of additional musicians.  They lost some of their old fans who (incorrectly) believed this was the creative end of their beloved dynamic duo.  If you’re one of those people, you’ve missed out on at least four great albums and a handful of decent ones.  Apollo 18’s heavy opener Dig My Grave had the young Johns acting like maniacs on stage. Oh wait, they’re 50. Instead of that being pathetic and awkward, it was natural and inspiring.

The humorous aspect of TMBG’s music is why they sometimes are dismissed by the rock snobs, but secretly everyone is just jealous they they can’t write songs as good as them.  Silly stage banter, ridiculous props, audience participation, and goofy experiments have been a staple at TMBG shows since the beginning.  The band announced that “the kids show is over people, it’s time for two clarinets on stage” for a rendition of the oldie Cow Town.  Their biggest hit Birdhouse In Your Soul and the simple yet effective Clap Your Hands  had the entire crowd singing along (out of key) at the top of their lungs and their World of Warcraft sculpted bodies bouncing together as one pulsating blob of dork.  Particle Man felt a little phoned in, but I’ll give them that.  Damn Good Time, a highlight from 2004s otherwise mediocre The Spine led into an extended sock puppet routine. I texted about 20 of my friends before the show suggesting they come. Not a single one did. Now, me trying to convince them they missed out on a good time by gushing how a sock puppet routine was hilarious as they sang a song about shoehorns, and actually quite beautiful as they sang an educational song about shooting stars is probably not helping my case. But trust me, if you guys would just embrace your inner-dweeb that I know you all have in you, you would have loved it.  Nobody is too cool for TMBG.  …wait, was I the only one here that got beat up in middle school?

A few more oldies; Turn Around and Hearing Aid were followed by Withered Hope from 2007’s The Else. Then they gave a demonstration of the $8000 digital drum set, and played the fan favorite Why Does the Sun Shine?  Here, I’ll throw in some live tracks from their first official live album to spice up this review:
Some Henry Kissinger zombie jokes led into Science is Real, an amazing atheist anthem for kids, again from their latest album.
Science is real
From the Big Bang to DNA
Science is real
From evolution to the Milky Way
I like the stories
About angels, unicorns and elves
Now I like those stories
As much as anybody else
But when I’m seeking knowledge
Either simple or abstract
The facts are with science
Science is real

And it’s natural follow up, My Brother the Ape. Take Out The Trash made me question my initial apathy for The Else, time to revisit. The horn section returned for a blistering extended opener to Istanbul, akin to the live version from Severe Tire Damage. Not often do trombone players get explosive cheers at the 9:30 Club.

A few more old ones, Where Your Eyes Don’t Go and an explosive ‘They Might Be Giants’ complete with Flaming Lips style confetti cannons ended the show. Despite the accordions, woodwind instruments, educational songs, and sock puppets, this show was 100% pure rock and roll.  The crowd demanded an encore and the band obliged.

The Alphabet of Nations, where the bands name countries in alphabetical order at lightnings speed, must be a bitch to remember but is a treat to see live. The crowd flipped out when the first notes of Meet James Ensor were played. Let me break this down; a minute and a half long song about an eccentric Belgian expressionist painter stuck in the middle of an album they made 15 years ago elicited huge cheers from a sold out audience. I fucking love this band.

The slightly lacking Museum of Idiots ended the encore, but thankfully they came back out for a couple more, the classic Dead from Flood and then some ridiculous band intros and solos, and finally Mr. Me from Lincoln.

Everyone got their moneys worth of TMBG that night. It wasn’t the best TMBG show I’ve seen, the bass was a little overpowering and the vocals a little muddy, but it was solid entertainment from start to finish, and so much fun. The dorks are on to something.