They Might Be Giants, Guggenheim Grotto
Thursday, November 5
Better than: Seeing an expertly executed live show that didn't include sock puppets.
They Might Be Giants couldn't stick to one sound during their appearance at the Gothic on Thursday night. The band's show, which nearly spanned two hours, included a comprehensive range of tunes, a selection that pulled from their latest release, Here Comes Science, as well as seminal albums from the 1990s like Flood and Apollo 18.
But the diversity of the band's song selection was only one piece of the impressive variety, ingenuity and breadth that marked the show. TMBG frontmen John Linnell and John Flansburgh drew on a rich mix of innovative instrumentation, engaging theatrics and plain onstage presence during their performance.
It's a dynamic that the duo has had almost thirty years to hone, and the years of practice certainly paid off on the Gothic stage. Linnell's keyboard, accordion and clarinet playing melded seamlessly with Flansburgh's guitar work, while pair's high voices blended together seamlessly.
Backed by their core band of drummer Marty Beller, guitarist Dan Miller and bassist Danny Weinkauf, the pair laid down spotless versions of the band's most challenging material. The addition of guest musician and longtime Tom Wait collaborator Ralph Carney on saxophone, clarinet and Turkish clarinet added another dimension the ensemble's onstage sound. It was a mash-up of different styles, varying tempos and a host of lyrical subjects, but the ambitious combination of ingredients worked.
As an opening band, Guggenheim Grotto's understated, folk-pop sound was an unlikely introduction to TMBG's expansive scope of sounds and subjects. The Dublin-based duo composed of Kevin May and Mick Lynch kicked off the show with a 40-minute set of straightforward balladry. Songs like "I Think I Love You" and "Wisdom" drew on acoustic guitar, keyboard and occasional ukulele as instrumentation, a stark sound compared to the Giants' wide scope of sounds.
But the capacity crowd warmed to Grotto almost immediately, and the pair's strong performance, while a bit slow-paced, got people clapping and enthusiastic. That enthusiasm would become explosive when the Giants took the stage. Kicking off their set with "Meet the Elements" from Science, the band then took a tour through past albums with well-honed versions of "New York City," "Ana Ng" and "Take Out the Trash."
The two Johns' onstage presence seemed to work in tandem; Linnell's deadpan smiles and stationary position behind the keyboard contrasted with Flansburgh constant motion around the stage and his loud exhortations to get the crowd involved. Linnell showed off his musical prowess, switching from keyboards to accordion to clarinet to cowbell without a pause.
Beller, Miller, Weinkauf and Carney also helped the frontmen and the band's founding members successfully pull off the act, with a rich musical framework that did not suffer for its ambitious scope. Indeed, the quintet's sound veered from the sultry funk grooves of "Why Does the Sun Really Shine," to the eerie sonic textures and dark melodic runs of "Where Your Eyes Don't Go," to the electronic claps and syncopated percussion of "Seven." The group even performed "Fingertips" from Apollo 18, a pastiche of brief musical impressions that jumps rapidly from style to style and speed to speed.
And they pulled it off.
Carney's stints on the Turkish clarinet were a highlight of the show, with the instrument's odd aesthetic and piercing tones adding a new dimension to tunes like "James K. Polk."
Flansburgh and Linnell added a degree of old-fashioned showmanship as a compliment to the catalogue of songs. The pair bantered between songs, riffing on random topics and drawing constant laughter from the teeming crowd. They rushed to a corner of the stage to don sock puppets on their hands for the performance of "What Is a Shooting Star" and "Shoehorn With Teeth" -- a pull-down screen beamed close-up image of the singing googly-eyed puppets that the frontment called the "Avatars of They." Confetti cannons shot massive amounts of paper scraps into the audience several times toward the end of the show, and John Flansburgh handed out bumper stickers after the end of the second encore.
During "Why Does the Sun Shine," Flansburgh pointed the mike at the audience for nearly the entire song. The volume of the crowd singing the lyrics was loud enough to carry the performance. Combined with the impressive musicianship, this showmanship helped make the concert feel more like an event. The Giants' brainy lyrics, their innovative compositional style and their sly sense of humor - elements easily found on their studio releases - were in full display.
But the live forum helped to spotlight another one of the band's skills. John and John, backed by an energetic and skilled ensemble, have an infectious talent to draw in a crowd and an uncanny ability put on a damned good show.
It's a knack that almost three decades has only seemed to sharpen.
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Personal Bias: This was easily the best show I've seen at the Gothic for at least two years.
Random Detail: The performance of "Cowtown" featured dual clarinet playing from Linnell and Carney.
By the Way: John Flansburgh favors a Fender Telecaster.
They Might Be Giants
11.05.09 - Gothic Theatre
01. Meet the Elements
02. New York City
03. Ana Ng
04. My Brother the Ape
05. Take Out the Trash
06. Doctor Worm
08. Birdhouse in Your Soul
09. Clap Your Hands
10. Where Your Eyes Don't Go
12. James K. Polk
14. Why Does the Sun Shine?
15. Why Does the Sun Really Shine?
16. What is a Shooting Star?
17. Shoehorn With Teeth
18. The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)
19. Istanbul (Not Constantinople)
22. The Alphabet
23. The Mesopotamians