Saturday afternoon, and I’d just finished my friend’s marvelous book, Long after Midnight at the Niño Bien when I get a phone call. Brünhilde and C. are driving home from Canton, and wonder what I’m up to that night. John Patrick Shanley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play Doubt is being staged by New Stage Theatre, I say, and I’m considering that, despite the $22 price tag. Brünhilde casually asks, “Are you going to the They Might Be Giants show, or are you past that stage of your life?”
“What They Might Be Giants show?” Relatively big-name acts that don’t come from Mississippi, Louisiana, or Tennessee, even those with cult followings rather than blockbuster statuses, usually end up playing in Memphis or New Orleans. They pass Mississippi by, and that’s what I’m assuming here. I’m not up to a three-hour drive to see a band I loved in my youth.
“No, no, they’re playing at Hal and Mal’s”—a restaurant/bar/concert venue about ten minutes from my apartment—“and I think it starts at nine.”
For all the irony and post-pop cleverness TMBG conveys on records, they rock out onstage. I’d last seen the Johns (Flansburgh and Linnell) in New Orleans, two weeks after 9/11, and found them to be affecting, uplifting, and danceable. The irony and (admittedly good) jokes get tempered by stage theatrics, crunchy guitars, and a super-tight rhythm section. Live, TMBG becomes a full-on band and not just two nerds goofing off in their basement. I reviewed that show for a short-lived zine, and this closing excerpt sums it up:
John Flansburgh surprised me. That’s putting it mildly. He’s one of the best frontmen I’ve ever seen live. He’s a terrific rhythm guitarist—punchy, assured, simultaneously raw and precise. He bounded around stage as if he was on a constant caffeine high, smirking and cracking jokes with just his eyes and grins.
In a sublime moment, the band burst into the faux-lounge crooner, “She’s Actual Size.” Midway through the song, Flansburgh paused to lead Hickey in a drum solo. But not a normal one. Flansburgh screamed, “Press 1 for Latin Dance!” and Hickey drummed a pattern fit for conga lines. After a few seconds, “Press 2 for Ringo Starr!” Hickey performed a drum fill that could have come straight out of Abbey Road. Flansburgh ran through three through five. “Press 6 for Mid-1970s Power Ballad!” At this point, the audience began to laugh uproariously. “Press 7 for Keith Moon!” Hickey emulated the high-voltage tom-tom flares of the Who. The fan favorite? “Press 9 for Animal from the Muppets!” Deafening cheers and laughter and pumping fists in the air.
So, yeah, I suppose TMBG is the same it’s always been, inspiring giggles, awe, and the movement of butts. But, finally, it’s figured out a way to do all three at once. In the 1980s, Flansburgh and Linnell started shows with a prerecorded tape pronouncing them to be the “Twin Quasars of Rock.” It was a joke at the time, but I think they’re serious now.
So, I spent my $22 on a rock show instead of a play. After 25 years together, this would be the band’s first-ever concert in Mississippi. I’d be foolish to miss it.
Hal and Mal’s caters more to the “bar” end of the venue than the “concert hall” end—there’s three bars, and either the stage needs to be raised higher or the audience floor leading up to it needs to slope slowly; or maybe I’m just too short. In any case, the sightlines aren’t great, and are hindered further by blocky, thick support posts. The cigarette smoke casts such a haze that I periodically thought my eyes were out of focus, and there’s precious little ventilation. (I’ve always thought rock clubs and dry cleaners were in collusion, but I can’t prove it.) Even John Flansburgh made jokes about it—“The only thing we ask is that you please don’t start smoking menthols, for Christ’s sake.”
Once the band got started, none of this mattered. With two encores, the five-piece band throttled through about 25 songs in 90 minutes. The band rocketed from song to song, often with only a second’s pause in-between. The opener, “Doctor Worm,” was still finishing when Flansburgh announced “This one’s called ‘Cyclops Rock!’” and off we went. Flansburgh barely had time to close the minute-long “Boss of Me”—better known as the theme for Malcolm in the Middle—with the line “Life is unfair” before the equally caustic “I Palindrome I” kicked in. Though Flansburgh’s movement was limited due to the small size of the stage, the band was energetic. Flansburgh and Linnell’s banter and winks to the audience were well-practiced and elicited laughs, though occasionally they went on too long. Their voices—nearly identically nasal Brooklyn whines—sounded in good form, and I was able to make out words and phrases above the din, despite the mediocre mix that bled the guitars too strongly into the rest of the sound. The rhythm section was notably solid and popping.
It should be noted that TMBG has fallen off my radar since 1998’s Severe Tire Damage. I was vaguely aware that the band had released three or four studio albums since then, and that its recent series of children’s albums have perhaps sold better than its “regular” work. While this was partly an exercise in nostalgia for me, it’s pleasing that TMBG didn’t wallow in past glories. I recognized only half of the songs played. They gleefully played two rousing songs—“Alphabet of Nations” and “Apartment Four”—from the kids’ albums. The golden oldies played from their early, mid-1980s albums were not the expected “Don’t Let Start” or “Ana Ng,” but instead “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head” (fueled by Linnell’s accordion) and the b-side favorite “Hey DJ, I Thought You Said We Had A Deal.” The band mixed new and old songs with abandon, and even the ones I didn’t recognize were enjoyable and sharp.
The standards were there, of course, but took on new dimensions in a live setting. “Particle Man” became a toe-tapping zydeco number; “Older” was a mock dirge, with confetti spraying the air during the first chorus; “New York City” remained a cheesy parody of a girl-pop song but felt genuinely (as opposed to ironically) jovial; “Birdhouse in Your Soul” soared and uplifted despite the lyrics’ best intentions of letting our expectations down gently.
After the unexpected “It’s Not My Birthday” (from 1988’s Lincoln) ended the first encore, the braying drunks behind me (two nice guys, but still…) shouted “ISTANBUL! ISTANBUL! ISTANBUL!” which became a rallying cry for the 300+ crowd. Soon enough, it became “CONSTANTINOPLE! CONSTANTINOPLE!” which is harder to chant out rhythmically. I remarked to Brünhilde that it would be perfect if the band decided not to play it. After all, it’s their version of Los Lobos’ “La Bamba”—an early cover song that’s inexplicably more popular than most of their original material.
Alas, it was not to be, but TMBG made it worthwhile. Lead guitarist Dan Miller came out onstage, with an acoustic guitar. Spotlighted, he essentially played “Istanbul (Not Constantinople” as a guitar solo without singing. It was intricate and gorgeous, growing more intense in strumming and faster in tempo. Gradually, the rest of the band joined him—drums first, then bass, and then the Johns. Finally, Flansburgh and Linnell sang it, complete with Flansburgh’s fake muezzin call during the bridge. Brünhilde said that the shrieking drunks were worth it all just for that version of the song.
Flansburgh and Linnell, however, weren’t satisfied with that. They closed with the slow and hilarious “How Can I Sing Like A Girl?” which belts out a line that could serve as a call to arms for the band and audience alike: “I want to raise my freak flag/ Higher and higher.”
It’s good to see TMBG passing on the meta-pop torch to the kids. The night’s opener was Oppenheimer, a young duo from Belfast. Shaun Robinson drummed and sang most lead vocals—it’s hard to do that well, and he pulled it off, with an earnest high tenor and crackling, inventive drum fills. Rocky O’Reilly bounced around the stage, pounding out guitar riffs, stepping on distortion pedals, singing through a vocoder, and manipulating keyboard effects. There was shtick—O’Reilly’s robot voice, a brief shoehorn solo, stage banter about the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day, handclaps, and goofy jokes—but the band seemed genuinely excited to be on stage, and thrilled to be playing for a reasonably enthusiastic crowd. I imagine that, twenty years ago, They Might Be Giants projected the same onstage aura.
Oppenheimer’s music mixes loud and slurring guitars, vocal harmonies, fast tempos, and the prominent use of Farfisa organ and Moog keyboards. The vocal delivery is sunny and lulling, even with the robot voices; the lyrics reflect complicated young love and causing ruckuses in clubs. Like TMBG, they keep the songs fast, funny, and short—nothing clocked in over 2½ minutes. The duo was impressive enough that I bought its full-length CD, which is even more fun without the drunk guy yelling in my ear for “They Might Be Giants!”
Two representative songs from the debut album, both of which were played at the show:
“This is a Test” and “Saturday Looks Bad to Me.”
These will stay up until 1 April 2008.