Live review: They Might Be Giants @ Vic Theatre

Heave Media, September 26, 2011
by Dominick Mayer

Nearing their 30-year anniversary, alt-pop-rockers They Might Be Giants have carved out a niche in the music world that transcends generational lines. Between their kid-friendly recordings and veteran status, the crowd at their sold-out Vic Theatre show this past Friday was a hodgepodge of young geeks, middle-aged dads and the children both camps have gone on to have. Johns Flansburgh and Linnell brought tracks from the recent Join Us to Chicago, along with a dive back into their sizable back catalog that spanned nearly two hours. Plus, there were puppets and a guitar army. I'm getting ahead of myself, though.

Opener Jonathan Coulton has become something of a cult hero in the geek world, parlaying his former work as a computer programmer into nerd rock that calls to mind not only the show's headliners but also Tally Hall. Precocious without turning cloying, Coulton has an ear for charming multi-instrumental pop. A genial presence, not one song in his surprisingly short set (about a half hour) began without a dose of sarcastic, self-deprecating banter. There was one moment the crowd was really waiting for, and Coulton delivered halfway in, playing "Still Alive," the climactic song from Portal. There are few acts who'd fit more perfectly at a TMBG show than Coulton.

Once TMBG came out, to a raucous ovation, kicking off with "Dead," the next hour and fifty minutes gave a tightly played, if acoustically wonky set. (The Vic is really not a great venue for many bands; Flansburgh and Linnell's vocals were getting frequently lost.) Flansburgh played the boisterous frontman to Linnell's more subdued troubadour, a dynamic that's served them so well for quite some time. For the first 45 minutes or so, the Johns ripped through cuts like "Celebration," "Meet James Ensor" and "Your Racist Friend" with zeal, and the audience responded in kind.

Then, the theatrics for which TMBG are known began. Bringing out the whole of the Chicago branch of the Onion's A.V. Club, Flansburgh led the lot in a rendition of "Horse With No Name" that saw nearly everybody onstage bust out acoustic guitars for the occasion. This was followed by a reprise of the cover of Chumbawamba's "Tubthumping" that TMBG put on for the A.V. Club, which handily bought the house down. Later, "Spoiler Alert" was delivered in the form of a puppet show that Linnell and Flansburgh put on offstage, hysterically staging choreography right out of an '80s rock video.

Though the set went on a bit too long near the end, with two encores culminating in a version of "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" that exploded into cacophany that rang out until the house lights came up, this was a very good legacy set that proved TMBG are still on their game after all these years.