They Might Be Giants Play a Joyful Marathon

Boca, January 27, 2018
by John Thomason

If memory serves, it’s been 10 years since They Might Be Giants played a show for grown-ups in South Florida, and at the Culture Room last night, the two Johns more than made up for lost time.

At the sold-out performance, the nerd-rock pioneers and onetime bastions of college radio cycled through more than 30 songs generously spanning their entire oeuvre, over two sets (“We’re opening for ourselves,” joked John Flansburgh), two encores and two and a half hours of stage time. Beginning with the spirited hoedown “Number Three” and concluding with the spiky, staccato pop of “Ana Ng,” it was nothing less than a TMBG bonanza that left few hits unplayed while allowing plenty of room for surprises.

“You guys are so short,” commented Flansburgh at the show’s outset, noting that he could lock eyes with each and every face in the crowd. Gently mocking the Culture Room’s weird, condensed layout and inescapable intimacy, he later added, “I feel like this is the longest in-store of our lives.”

I got where he was coming from: The Culture Room clearly was too small a room for an act this popular. The group’s fan base, a polite and dedicated cult of the bearded and the bespectacled, Gen-Xers and their kids (“This is a surprisingly un-drink crowd,” Flansburgh noted), packed the dance floor like cars on a gridlocked highway. While mobility was often a challenge, the view of the stage proved blissfully unobstructed from pretty much anywhere on the floor.

All the better to watch Flansburgh and John Linnell, still youthful in their late ‘50s, spread so much infectious joy from their perches. The bells and whistles were absent from this scaled-back tour—no confetti rained from the rafters during the jubilant campaign anthem “James K. Polk”—planting the focus squarely on the genre-hopping music and the Johns’ complementary camaraderie.

If the quirky, brainy humor imbedded in TMBG’s lyrics tends to overshadow their musicianship on record, their tours bring the music on an equal footing. This was evident across selections as varied as “Damn Good Times,” with an intricate, progressive guitar solo that briefly transported fans to a Trans-Siberian Orchestra show; “Cloisonné,” which featured Linnell’s contra alto clarinet adding color and dynamism to a mostly guitar- and keyboard-driven set; and the grody garage stomp of “Dig My Grave.”

“Your Racist Friend,” one of the night’s most eagerly received highlights, swayed with tropical (and topical) muscularity. Surfabilly, polka and lounge music all surfaced during the eclectic evening, in and around catchy alt-pop sing-alongs like “New York City,” “Doctor Worm” and of course “Birdhouse in Your Soul.”

The band modified some of its signature tunes to varying success. The insertion of a few lines from Sia’s ubiquitous “Chandelier” in the middle of “Particle Man” was cute, as were the references to South Florida locales toward the climax of “Why Does the Sun Shine?” Less successful was the Johns’ flaccid deconstruction of “Istanbul,” which devolved into a droning, Streisand-sampling, reverb-drenched dirge. I don’t know if Linnell and Flansburgh are simply sick of this novelty hit after playing it in roughly every show for 28 years, but that’s how it came across.

If there was another comedown, it was a rather lackluster encore of “Let Me Tell You About My Operation” and “Bangs,” cuts few in the audience were chomping to experience. But then something beautiful happened: Assuming the show was over, an exodus of people left the sardine-packed dance floor, and the band reappeared for a second encore, entertaining the now-sparse audience with a perfect send-off of three bona fide classics.

We would have happily waiting around for a third, or fourth, encore. For now, it’ll have to do—hopefully not for another 10 years.