It's a special kind of when-did-I-get-so-old moment when a band you grew up with celebrates its 30th anniversary. In all fairness, They Might Be Giants as we've known them won't turn 30 for another four years, when their debut self-titled LP reaches the three-decade mark. Also, this occasion was celebrated with the playing of an album released in 1988, so really, we shouldn't feel so old, right? Sure, this was a 30th anniversary show, but it felt more like 26. Yeah, 26!
For the past five years or so, TMBG has mostly released children's records for its nerdy fans that had since grown up and produced new baby nerds. Having played a set earlier that day for the children, Saturday night was for the big kids, most of whom are now 20 years removed from the high school marching band, and who had come to hear a classic record and the band's trademark sly, goofy humor.
They found John Flansburgh and John Linnell to have aged gracefully and consistently, as expected: Flansburgh bearded, little heavier now; Linnell just as gawky and wiry as one can remember. The former wore a black sport coat and mom jeans, the latter a maroon fleece pullover and slacks.
As usual, the more-gregarious Flansburgh took the share of frontman duties, though Linnell stepped in where he pleased, once hilariously, when he teased tour guitarist Dan Miller who missed a cue to take the stage. "George Harrison," he said mock-accusingly; then in a perfect Liverpool brogue, said, "I'll play what you want or I won't play at all."
A couple of times it was evident this was the second show on the tour, which started Friday night in Santa Cruz. Flansburgh didn't have the song order memorized and shone a hilariously over-sized flashlight on his setlist between songs; and after a near-miss on a three-part harmony part on "Celebration," Linnell mused sarcastically about "totally not having a meeting" after the show.
For the most part, there were solid, true-to-the-recording renditions of classic material. This meant Flansburgh was playing his usual Telecaster, with Linnell switching between the synth, accordian, and bass clarinet, and each taking turns backing each other up on vocals. The four-piece drums/bass/guitar/horn ensemble filled out the band, and provided an occasional subject for comic relief.
For instance, the band celebrated drummer Marty Beller's 1000th Twitter follower ("zombie"), with the Johns riffing all codger-y toward the social media platform. Their latest video had terrible disease (it had gone "viral"). All of this ironic because TMBG has always been ahead of their time with that sort of thing, with the Dial-a-Song hotline in the 1980s and became the first major-label band to release an online-only album, 1999's Long Tall Weekend.
Flansburgh and Linnell donned sock puppet avatars, cracked jokes on subjects ranging from prescription medications and heavy metal, and whipped the crowd into frenzied chanting with "People vs. Apes." The stage show was pretty modest by TMBG standards: a few strobes, and a video backdrop featuring Lite Brite stop-animation and teddy-bear-in-the-wash-machine cartoon renderings. No confetti cannons this time around.
At 30, everyone starts to mellow.
Critic's Bias: I sing "Purple Toupee" in the shower.
The Crowd: Nerds past and present. Former high school drama club stage techs.
Overheard: Thick-rimmed dad to 10-year-old son: "That was an awesome show, huh?"
Random Notebook Dump: The guys in front of me played chess on an iPhone while waiting for the show to start. Nerds!