Show Review: They Might Be Giants with Moon Hooch at the Warfield, 6/14/2013

Spinning Platters, June 17, 2013
by Mitch Kocen

They Might Be Giants have been playing together, in some shape, since 1982. Please, take a moment to let that sink in; this Brooklyn-based nerd-pop outfit has been churning out music for more than thirty years. This is a band that’s spanned five different presidents. A band that has witnessed countless similar acts form and breakup, reform and rebreakup. A band that has been making music for twice as long as Jaden Smith has been alive. A band with a legacy this long has two choices: They can become their own cover band, playing the hits that their audience crave, never growing, never changing. Or they can keep producing new music, evolving their sound, keeping their live-show fresh.

Fortunately for both the band and the fans, They Might Be Giants opted to take option B, and their set at the Warfield last Friday was all the better for it.

Moon Hooch kicked the show off with flair. A dance music brass duo (plus drummer) discovered while inciting “subway raves” in New York, the group whipped the crowd into a jazzy dance frenzy. While Mike Wilbur blitzed the crowd with the melody line, Wenzl McGowen put his saxaphone and contrabass clarinet to the seemingly impossible task of producing an EDM worthy bassline. They even managed to produce some dubstep worthy bass-dropping, a feat that speaks more to McGowen’s raw talent than it does to any computer trickery. Drummer James Muschler kept the party moving with an almost non-stop drum barrage. The trio’s chemistry is unmistakable, especially between Wilbur and McGowen. Apologies if my photos of Moon Hooch are blurry; I couldn’t stop dancing during their set. Expect great things from these guys.

As an aside, McGowen ended the set with an invitation for collaboration with other groups looking to reintroduce analog instruments to the dance music scene. If you’re interested, get in touch with them through Facebook. Tell them Spinning Platters sent you.

Once Moon Hooch sufficiently warmed up the crowd, it was time for They Might Be Giants to take the stage. They launched into “When Will You Die”, one of their newer songs, and the enthusiasm of the crowd telegraphed that the fresh material is just as beloved as their classics. Over the course of two hours, founding members Johns Linnell and Flansburgh and permanent additions Dan Miller (guitar) Danny Weinkauf (bass guitar) and Marty Beller (drums) lead a guided tour across TMBG’s storied history. They hit songs from just about every one of their non-children studio albums while still showcasing their latest release Nanobots. Chestnuts like “Birdhouse in Your Soul”, “Don’t Let’s Start” and “Ana Ng” were joined by freshly minted crowd pleasers “You’re On Fire”, “Circular Karate Chop” and “Icky.”

It’s been some years since the last time I’ve seen TMBG live, and I was delighted by a new (introduced in 2009) addition to their show: The Avatars of They. Donning hand puppets and hiding behind a riser, John and John entertained the crowd as the Avatars of They, hawking products and thanking They Might Be Giants for being their opening act. They sang a delightful song called “He’s Loco” that sounded like it belongs on a best of Sifl and Olly compilation. The interlude was a well received change of pace and provided a much needed break for Miller and Weinkauf, who’d spent the first half of the show running and jumping and mugging for the crowd.

Renewed, reinvigorated and depuppeted, They Might Be Giants closed out the show with a similar mix of oldies and newies, including a delightful reworking of “Istanbul Not Constantinople” with a “Take Me Back/No” call and response that stretched on and on. Nowhere else was the relationship that has kept They Might Be Giants strong more apparent than Linell and Flansburgh’s interplay during that sequence.

Throughout the show, They Might Be Giants graciously namechecked Moon Hooch, encouraging fans to buy their CDs and t-shirts to compensate for Moon Hooch’s enormous carbon footprint.

They Might Be Giants returned for two encores, closing the show on the chilling and beautiful “End of the Tour” then distributing stickers to the adoring fans. John Flansburgh in particular seemed very focused on ensuring that everyone who wanted a sticker got one. He gave me a stack to pass around the back rows, and I took the responsibility very seriously.

Throughout the show I scanned the audience behind me, trying to get a feel for the age and makeup of the crowd. Would it be mostly older folk like me, singing along to Flood and Apollo 18 songs, muttering their way through anything off of Nanobots. Would it be packed with 14 year olds who’d never heard “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head” before that night? To my pleasure, it was a great range of both ages, and everyone seemed to know all the songs. They Might Be Giant’s side job making children’s music has given them a built in audience, kids who have grown up learning science, spelling and robot parading from TMBG eventually blossom into moody teenagers who find solace in Lincoln and John Henry. A friend I brought with me to the concert asked me what I loved about the group and I told her that I discovered the band at a time in my life when I needed a band like They Might Be Giants. I suspect that most people who loves the group had a similar experience, making a connection to the music, discovering that it’s ok to love something that isn’t very cool but is clever in exactly the way you are. Seeing the fresh blood in the audience gave me heart that They Might Be Giants will continue to reach the people who need them for decades to come.