The members of They Might Be Giants didn't waste their rare opportunity to headline an NBA arena Thursday night Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
Vocalist-guitarist John Flansburgh called on the crowd to execute a "wave" around the building's lower bowl — "This is like being into sports," he said — and he also assembled a human theremin experiment.
The theremin experiment, in which audience members replicated the electronic instrument's output by merely singing low notes to high notes without interruption, is something Flansburgh likely does when They Might Be Giants plays smaller rooms.
But its scientific vibe seemed to align with the reason TMBG found itself at Bankers Life Fieldhouse: opening night of the 50th edition of the Gen Con tabletop gaming convention. (Just as the "wave" ironically contrasts with non-sports stereotypes associated with gamers).
Flansburgh and his TMBG co-founder, vocalist-keyboard player John Linnell, are only 15 years behind Gen Con in terms of longevity. The band's trademark approach of matching quirky lyrics to surf music, garage rock and baroque pop connected with the estimated audience of 6,000 — but it took a few songs for everyone to get comfortable.
"It's so weird playing a place this big," said Flansburgh, who also referred to Bankers Life Fieldhouse as "corporate dome."
About seven songs into the show, band and audience loosened up during a rendition of "The Guitar," a 1992 song that includes altered DNA of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight." After Flansburgh encouraged people seated on the sides to stand up and come closer, a lengthy conga line snaked its way across the arena floor.
Linnell and Flansburgh admitted to knowing little about Gen Con, the convention that's bringing more than 60,000 card-game, board-game and role-playing enthusiasts to Indianapolis through Sunday.
"We're so old we remember when dungeons and dragons were separate genres," Linnell said, making a valiant stab at a timely and topical joke.
It's safe to say there's a Venn-diagram intersection between what gamers enjoy and what Linnell and Flansburgh write songs about.
"We don't want to get political, so we just stick to the facts," Flansburgh said when introducing one of a handful of songs devoted to science.
Crowd members heard "Why Does the Sun Shine? (The Sun Is a Mass of Incandescent Gas)," "Particle Man" and "Robot Parade."
The lyrics of "Meet the Elements" inform that “plants, bugs, birds, fish, bacteria and men are mostly carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen and oxygen.”
Musically, guitarist Dan Miller provided expert accompaniment to two-time Grammy Award winners Linnell and Flansburgh. They introduced Miller to the audience about a dozen times during the show, and he deserved the attention.
Lyrically, Linnell has a knack for zeroing in on the existential amid the laughs.
On the gleefully negative "When Will You Die," he sang, “On that promised morning we will wake and greet the dawn, knowing that your wicked life is over and that we will carry on."
And "Don't Let's Start," the duo's breakthrough single from 30 years ago, continues to sear the mind: “No one in the world ever gets what they want and that is beautiful. Everybody dies frustrated and sad and that is beautiful."
Despite the band's pledge regarding politics, Linnell did refer to President Trump as a "horrible president" when introducing TMBG's 1990 song based on the 11th U.S. president, "James K. Polk."