While millions tuned into the Oscars last night to see whether a movie about an aging actor would defeat a film that took place over the course of 12 years, They Might Be Giants, a project that demands its own meditation on mortality and the march of linear time, took the stage at Music Hall of Williamsburg to play their debut album. Part of a string of shows at Music Hall that will see the band celebrate the 25th anniversary of their seminal record, Flood, next month, TMBG, as they’re fondly abbreviated, navigate their third decade as a project with the aplomb of the Original Gangsters of Brooklyn. But the two Johns—Flansburgh and Linnell—that still comprise the genesis and 30 years of enjoyable musical entropy of the band, remain as sharp in their arrangements and as quirky as ever. If the night promised a return to the 1986 self-titled record, this wouldn’t be the bildungsroman narrative of Boyhood or the middle-aged redemption tale of Birdman. The amazing thing about the Giants is how little they’ve changed since the Reagan administration.
John Flansburgh opened with the band’s requisite dry humor, quipping, “This room smells great … I’ve been on uptown buses, and this beats all of them.” The show itself, billed as the band playing their first LP, quickly wasn’t about that at all, Flansburgh again wryly noting, “We’ll be playing our first record, but out of order and with other songs in between.” Trust TMBG to playfully subvert their own premise. They opened with three cuts in a row off They Might Be Giants, “Chess Piece Face,” “I Hope That I Get Old Before I Die” and “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head,” before mixing in such recent favorites as “Dr. Worm” and “Man, It’s So Loud in Here,” plus yet-to-be-released material, like “Let Me Tell You About My Operation” and “Music Jail, Part 1 and 2.” The crowd, reacting more feverishly to the older numbers, sang along, a mutual memory machine for those who knew all the words and one of the most prodigious acts in rock history remembering some of their oldest songs. Even the rapid-fire lyrics of “Rhythm Section Want Ad” and “Everything Is Right Is Wrong Again” clearly emerged from the band and their fans.
After playing the club-music send-up, “Man, It’s So Loud in Here,” Flansburgh remarked that the 2001 composition was from the “middle of our career.” Linnell looked askance at his bandmate just for a moment, before correcting, “I think we’re in the middle right now.” While the implication of another 30 years of making hyperliterate, genre-bending pop would wait on the march of time, the Giants launched into “Absolutely Bill’s Mood,” a song they wrote in 1985. Birdman won the Oscar for Best Picture an hour or so after this brief but telling moment, but it was TMBG who looked and sounded undaunted and enlivened staring into their past and unfolding future.