"We know you had your choice of ossified alternative rock bands, so thank you for flying with us!" hollered John Flansburgh, the gregarious, guitar-playing half of Brooklyn's They Might Be Giants, who for some three decades now have shown the world that rock with joy and humor in it doesn't have to be a joke.
But that was a joke from Flansburgh. It came with the first encore, when the nostalgia portion of the show had been dispensed with -- "Particle Man" and "Birdhouse in Your Soul" had already been built to and played like they were fresh. It came just before the new song, "Can't Keep Johnny Down," a swirling killer of a pop tune as gum-in-your-hair catchy as anything from their best-ofs but also possessed of greater pathos and irony.
And it came long after it had already been implied by "Older," the opening song, a hectoring little earworm that taunts "You're older than you've ever been/And now you're even older," and pretty much does nothing else but remind you of just how much of your quite limited time left on this Earth you're spending listening to this song. It's morbid but upbeat, sobering yet funny, a perverse and perfect start to the first of the two alt-rock-veterans-play-their-great-1990-record shows to hit San Francisco hit this week. (The Giants played Flood; on Thursday, Robyn Hitchcock plays his spare and heartbroken Eye at Slim's.)
Older acts playing their old records for aging crowds while time -- and the culture -- marches on.
The trick, then, is to somehow muster up vitality even while selling nostalgia. The Giants aced this last night when taking on Flood, the career-defining major-label debut beloved by fans for its abundant ditties and philosophical nursery rhymes.
Flood is as much a rite of passage as a rock record, a big ol' sing-a-long clubhouse in which clever teens and college kids can cocoon. Even in the They Might Be Giants catalog it's a cheerful anomaly: angstless, folky, whimsical, mostly stripped of the art-rock weirdness that make it impossible to mistake They Might Be Giants or Lincoln for children's music.
It can be a little much, especially in the second half, when "Letterbox" and "Hot Cha" and "Whistling in the Dark" pile on top of each other like candy in a bellyful of candy. That made Sunday night something of a revelation. In the interest of "the crescendo" -- and to deal with the simple fact that albums and live shows tend to have entirely different structures -- the Giants played Flood in reverse order, a move less cutesy than it is practical stagecraft, since the band's three most famous songs all occur in the first half of Flood's A-side.
Flipping a familiar record this way is a fascinating what-if. When Flood opens with "Road Movie to Berlin" and the junkshop hurly burly of "They Might Be Giants," and then builds, over forty minutes, to the towering "Birdhouse in Your Soul," the art-rock weirdness seems more prominent, and "Letterbox" and "Whistling in the Dark" no longer suffer for following the richer "Dead" or "We Want a Rock." The soaring "Women and Men" benefits from being the first singalong. "Whistling in the Dark" is still a ditty, but heard with a clean palate, it's a gratifying one whose mysteries nicely shadow its jaunty advice -- advice that is pretty much the best I've ever heard in a pop song: "Be what you're like! Be like yourself!"
Never mind that that song's protagonist is in a jail of some sort. The chorus -- "Whistling in the dark!" -- is as close as this stalwartly upbeat band has ever come to declaring a thesis statement. (Although "XTC vs. Adam Ant" could be rock crit shorthand for the difference between John Linnel and John Flansburgh's songwriting.)
The backwards trick enlivened what could easily have been a fan-service ritual. The band's bang-up, fully committed performance did, too, as did dynamic new arrangements, Flansburgh's between-song chatter, and some dadaist touches that suggest the sharp-edged cabaret rock shows the two Johns used to pull off when only a duo. (Now, they're nicely augmented by Marty Bellar, Dan Miller, and Danny Weinkauf.)
Strong as Flood is, the newer material that opened and closed the show -- songs like "Can't Keep Johnny Down," "Never Knew Love," "Drink!", "When Will You Die" -- feels something like those Flood ditties grown up into full-on songs. "Damn Good Times" builds to a feverish pogo pitch, "Subliminal" offered something like accordion power-chords, and Lincoln-era b-side "We're the Replacements" got caught up in genuine rock abandon.
In fact, so many first-rate songs comprise the They Might Be Giants songbook that I find myself a little annoyed at Flood, which is unfair, but still. Novelties like "Particle Man" and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" are only the tip of what these guys have in them. Their newest CD, Join Us, is their best in years. It's sharp, singular melodic pop music that's weird, moving, unsettling, and funny. There's even a couple of jokes on it.
Opener Jonathan Coulton isn't above jokes, either, and his come wrapped in crisp, fleet guitar pop of the sort that echoes Nick Lowe, Cheap Trick, Rick Springfield, and any number of subsequent singers who have since been compared to those three. But Coulton's strong enough to suggest the originals.
He bashes out straight-ahead rock with lyrics more everyday geeky than the Giants', which -- a recent reference to Sleestaks notwithstanding -- have tended toward practical nerdery (history, science, surrealism) rather than geek culture. Coulton, though, sings about Portal and zombies and whipping up computer code.
He's funny, especially when charting little humiliations in an average life, as in "Good Morning, Tucson," in which a local TV morning news anchor can't get over the fact that interns were born in the '90s. Christ, they never even knew a world without Flood. Here's hoping he has a record in him that warrants revisiting in 2031.