Midway through Friday's jubilant They Might Be Giants show at the Pabst Theater, keyboardist, accordionist, and sometimes-bass-clarinetist John Linnell pulled a decidedly non-rock-star move and politely asked for less smoke from the stage smoke machines. It was a tellingly dorky moment, perfectly encapsulating the Giants' energetic yet ultimately mild-mannered stage persona, and supported the notion that Johns Linnell and Flansburgh would probably prefer some quiet reading time to playing a rock show.
Not that the night was a snoozer or bereft of joy--far from it. Kicking off with the droning "Subliminal" from 1994's John Henry--the first Giants album to utilize a full band--the group seemed bright eyed and energized. Forever the showman of the group, John Flansburgh constantly prowled the stage (in blue jeans and sneakers, natch), serving as the band's focal point and hype man. Along with guitarist Dan Miller, bassist Danny Weinkauf, and drummer Marty Beller, the Johns dutifully visited their monster hits--"Birdhouse In Your Soul," "Ana Ng," "Don't Let's Start," show-closer "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)"--but took the time for some surprising deep cuts, like "Dead" from 1990's Flood, and "Lie Still, Little Bottle" from 1988's Lincoln. Even more surprising was the audience's giddy reaction to new material from the excellent Join Us. The sparkling "Can't Keep Johnny Down" sounded instantly at home with the Giants' back catalog, as did the improbable rave-up "When Will You Die." And while the show was adult-oriented in a way only a They Might Be Giants show can be--rarely will you see a rock show with a 14-plus age recommendation--a few kiddie-hits made their way into the set, most notably "Alphabet Of Nations" from 2005's Here Come The ABCs.
But perhaps the true highlight of the show was the easy camaraderie between the two Johns. A mid-set, two-man puppet show was endearingly lo-fi and funny (and culminated with the puppets singing the excellent new "Spoiler Alert"), and some between-song banter covering topics like the demise of Borders book stores and a possible murder-suicide pact between Wagner and Beethoven seemed genuinely off-the-cuff. During moments when he wasn't playing or singing, Linnell appeared more content to cross his arms and curiously regard his partner instead of indulging in any accordion- or keyboard-god posturing. For band and audience alike, it was clear that after nearly 30 years, a They Might Be Giants show is as comfortable as stepping into an old pair of Keds, and a perfect opportunity to rock out, politely.