They Might Be Giants pack the Mouse House

The Brooklyn veterans maintain popularity by appealing to new fans as much as old ones.

Orange County Register, June 16, 2013
by Philip Cosores

By the time They Might Be Giants took the stage Saturday night at House of Blues Anaheim, the show was sold out, with people expecting to score tickets at the door instead getting turned away.

For those who didn't make it inside, a couple bits of good news:

1) The long-running Brooklyn duo and their band used their farewells here to announce a late fall return to Southern California, with another of their almost annual family performances to be held at UCLA's Royce Hall, along with a yet-to-be-scheduled rock show.

2) History indicates that at some point soon TMBG will return to this spot they've frequented since 2001. After all, they came back in '02 and '03, twice in '04, then '07 and '11.

Those who did manage to squeeze onto the densely packed floor of the Downtown Disney venue or watch from the balcony's strategically located video monitors saw the 31-year old institution run through classic hits and new songs alike, all the while aware of the fan-boy nature of their audience and never taking it for granted.

Originally just two guys named John, Messrs. Flansburgh and Linnell, the current five-piece incarnation is steadier than might be expected of a "touring band," as bassist Danny Weinkauf and guitarist Dan Miller have both been with the group since 1998, drummer Marty Beller since 2004. All have garnered songwriting credits during their time with the band, and all but Beller were recruited from outfits that once opened for the two Johns.

To say a TMBG gig is no longer focused on its creative forces, however, would by lying. Attention is driven toward them, as they alternate between handling lead vocals and performing absurdist skits, including a now-famous puppet show that has become a recent set inclusion.

Yet the music never takes a backseat to the antics, a pattern that held true Saturday night. What's notable is how fans seemingly aren't as nostalgic for early material as they used to be. Newer albums continue to add generations of fans to their fold, while TMBG's forays into kid tunes – among other efforts, they won their second Grammy for the 2009 album Here Come the 123s and provided themes for Disney's Higglytown Heroes and Mickey Mouse Clubhouse – has given the descriptor "all-ages" expanded meaning. (They deliver completely different sets when a show is dubbed a "family concert.")

Fans reacted as strongly to opening cut "When Will You Die," from 2011's Join Us, as they did the song that followed, their cover of Canadian group Cub's "New York City," from 1996's Factory Showroom. This year's well-received 16th TMBG album, Nanobots, was represented without dominating the spotlight, with songs like "Call Your Mom" and "Tesla" worthy additions to their canon.

Still, though not all fans may distinguish essential tracks the same way, the group's first three albums, and the songs played from them here, remain most iconic. When Lincoln's "Ana Ng" was led with an extended intro (centered on its opening distorted guitar note) that made clear the song to come, you could feel the crowd's anticipation and excitement grow. It's among a handful of compositions – "Birdhouse in Your Soul" is another – that feel bigger than the band, and they were performed with the reverence they deserve. Likewise, another of their staples, a remake of the '50s swing tune "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," was played just as a duo, stripped-down and given a breath of fresh life.

While the Johns were informing the crowd about that coming return to Royce Hall, they also mentioned a free show in Brooklyn in August. There didn't seem to be any expectation that fans will attend, but the information was given knowing there are people who will do just that. Awareness of an audience's dedication is needed to please them, but They Might Be Giants also realize that solely playing into that trap can disregard new fans. By balancing nostalgia with forward-thinking strides, they set a commendable standard of how to enter a fourth decade of creativity and still be vital.