You know you’re old when you’re stoked to post on social media that you saw such and such a band 30 years ago and are seeing them play again. It’s certainly a tedious way to start a concert review.
But, in this case, I have to gush/brag. Not humblebrag. Brag. Over 30 years ago, I saw They Might Be Giants (TMBG) play in New York. I’m from New York, so this fact is less exotic than it might seem. It was in the Village, either that or maybe Queens, and I brought my Marine Band harmonica because audience members were encouraged to bring an instrument. In my memory, there were only 40 people there, perhaps 60. Less than at a Bar Mitzvah for sure. In trying to research when and where I saw this rather scaled down show, I stumbled upon the long forgotten Dial A Song line. I used to call it monthly? weekly? I left them messages. In those days leaving fake messages on machines was funny. Funny.
Anyway, TMBG’s first album is one of the few vinyls that survived life purges and joined me in my cross border life. Sentimentality, perhaps, since I don’t own a turntable. I remember carrying it home from Slipped Disc in Valley Stream, New York by bicycle. I spent $1 on it and considered it a real coup, even though I bought it without knowing a single song. Scratched into its surface was a tantalizing message, “Johnny call home (718) 387-6962.” Also, the cover art (Rodney Alan Greenblat — who you can find in Catskill NY now) was killer with a big blue dog. Let’s face it– these were pre SoundCloud and Spotify and Apple Music days, and you had to risk some money to find out you didn’t like what you bought. As it turns out, I chose wisely, certainly more wisely than when I picked up Only Stupid Bastards Help EMI. TMBG fit well with other arty bands I liked at the time, Talking Heads and the B-52s. TMBG enjoyed regular rotation on my turntable and I made camcorder videos lip syncing the words to their songs. Those videos did not survive life purges.
This digression is all to say that TMBG were a big part of my life and identity for a chunk of my youth. I considered them my special find as no one I knew had ever heard of them and it would be some time before anyone else did. I got to see their career grow — regular play on WLIR/WDRE, a song for the show Malcolm in the Middle, shameless love from NPR’s Radiolab, airplay on satellite radio’s kid stations (so sayeth my brother). It’s always a thrill to see “your” band get famous.
But the real thrill ultimately comes down to the fact they’re still at it and so are you. TMBG’s live show reflects a lifetime spent making music. My lifetime. This is the release of their 20th album. That’s practically an album a year. At the Fairmount, they came with a full band — second guitar (Dan Miller), bass (Danny Weinkauf), percussion (Marty Beller), and horns (Curt Ramm). It was hard not to compare today’s lineup with my 14-year-old self’s memory of John Linnell and John Flansburgh goofing with some weird instruments.
Back to today. With great warmth and zaniness, John and John bantered about poutine and the corrupt city Providence. “Funny,” said John Flansburgh, repeating a mafioso-style warning uttered at him after joking about the mayor’s election from jail. Even if they played no music, the two have a solid stand-up routine between them. According to John and John, they hadn’t been in Montreal for 30 years.
And then… the hits. With 20 albums, they’re not going to play all of them. Not even a tiny fraction. Ana Ng? Nope. Puppet Head? Nope. Hotel Detective? Nope. But, they did belt out Particle Man, Don’t Let’s Start, Birdhouse in Your Soul, The Mesopotamians, and the anthemic How Can I Sing Like a Girl? The adoring audience sang along to each and every one, never missing a lyric, even on new material.
The song of the night was Constantinople/Istanbul, where Ramm switched from trumpet to trombone as the song required. He strode from one side of the stage to the other. I also enjoyed the acoustic portion of the set which featured Flansburgh, Linell, and Beller doing a few “political” songs: James K. Polk, Tippecanoe and Tyler Too. Nostalgia.
The quirkiness of They Might Be Giants makes them ever appealing and they fly their freak flags proudly. Partially it’s a willingness to pull in some unusual instruments — some sort of contra-alto clarinet, a glockenspiel. Linnell plays the accordian. It’s also the visuals chosen. They use go-pro cams resulting in upside down views of the audience or band’s-eyeviews. At the start of the second set, a video of Walk This Way with Aerosmith and Run DMC ran while Last Wave played through the speakers. Between sets, someone found a Canadian flag featuring our now legal leaf and draped it over the drums. But there’s something more to their free spiritedness. I’m hardly the first to point out that co-leads, Linnell and Flansburgh aren’t the skinny, long haired self-loathing types that front popular alternative bands. Since they come from the time before geeks, and certainly before the time that being a geek was actually a desirable social status, I’m just going to call it as I see it. They’re nerds. Cool nerds, but nerds. Whether being a nerd is hip or not, doesn’t matter. A nerd doesn’t need to conform, and this show is a celebration of non-conformity. TMBG’s embodies the concept that being yourself, whatever that self is, is the most fun you can have. They even sing as much in what might be their most important lyric, “Be what you’re like. Be like yourself.”
But a band doesn’t last just because being shamelessly yourself is a message that people love to hear or because they’re fun. TMBG goes beyond being an art-alt-rock band with a handful of quirky songs about science and history. They good musicians and the one can tangibly sense their jazz roots. Style is something they swap as needed. Want polka? Got it. Want west coast swing? Got it. Surf punk? Got it. Think of what kinda music you want? They got it. Got it. Got it. Got it. But their jazz-club hearts come through, especially during the solos. Sometimes they play subtle and sometimes big. It’s that back and forth rapport that gives a magical sense that this show isn’t run like a machine, but like a living organism. They change on the fly. They have room to explore. They’re like the guys who enjoy hanging out at jam night and just giving and taking from each other for the creation of great music, and not because someone feels the compelling need to be responsible for a particular melody or moment.
All in all, I am quite lucky to have this band in my life. There was a time when being not okay, wasn’t okay, so you just shut up about it and dealt with it on your own. For all the times when I needed to be told it’s okay to be me exactly as I am, I had TMBG to thank for giving me that permission. And I’m hardly the only one. On their dust covered tour bus, fans fingered in the titles of songs they wished they’d heard, drew pictures, and wrote messages. Someone wrote, “You have been with me forever.” Funny, that.