They Might Be Giants are pop culture survivors. Entering their 32nd year as a band, the two Johns, John Linnell and John Flansburgh, have outlived most of their contemporaries and remain a vital and dynamic presence in the music community. TMBG have survived all these years by evolving, jumping onto new technology faster than a speeding accordion solo. It could be argued that They Might Be Giants were the first band to stream music for free. In the ’80s, after a bicycle accident left John Linnell with a broken wrist, TMBG set up their famous Dial-A-Song service. Folks could call in from all over the world to listen to a new song recorded to their answering machine every day. It was a fascinating experiment that yielded TMBG some of their most famous and memorable songs.
With this in mind, it was fitting to begin Saturday night’s rare retrospective concert with a short sound clip from Untitled, a message left to TMBG on their Dial-A-Song service from Gloria, an unknown elderly woman who just doesn’t quite understand what a “There May Be Giants” is.
As a long time They Might Be Giants fan, Saturday’s show at UCLA’s Royce Hall was a dream come true. A full performance of their eponymous debut album (lovingly dubbed “The Pink Album” by its fans) in its entirety seemed nearly impossible. Most of the songs off this album had been retired from TMBG’s live shows since 1992. And yet, two months ago, people subscribed to their newsletter were greeted with the astounding, inconceivable fact: This show was happening!
Entering from stage right, our heroes John and John emerged. They acknowledged the rarity of the show with a little reminiscing about playing at The Bottom Line in New York City, where many of their performances were initially met with deafening silence. They explained that the show would be separated into two separate halves: the “dreamin’” section (all of the songs off the first album) and the “dancin’” section (miscellaneous songs from all over their catalogue). Linnell even joked the first half would be best enjoyed with hand on chin or palm on cheek.
They blasted into a duo performance of “I Hope That I Get Old Before I Die.” Much of the audience clapped and stomped along. This gave way to a full band performance of “She’s An Angel”, a particularly beloved song off “Pink.” The Avatars of They (two sock puppets who usually sing a song in the middle of the show) did a new, extended version of “Toddler Hi-Way.” It was announced that Bill Krauss, producer of many early TMBG releases and namesake for “Absolutely Bill’s Mood,” was in attendance. He was urged by Flansburgh to “give himself a high five.” Anecdotes abounded, a personal favorite of mine being a riff on the idea of a DVD commentary for VH1 Storytellers. It was all pretty swell.
The night went on with very few snags. Danny Weinkauf tripped over the drum set and nearly fell off the stage into a crowd of people, and many concertgoers (myself included) were discouraged from dancing in the aisles. This became quite exasperating until Flansburgh, at the beginning of the “Dancin’” section, authorized the audience to flood the aisles and run to the stage, which most of the audience was happy to do. It was a joyous night filled with laughs, dancing and nostalgia. The songs seemed like a true rush for the Johns, taking them back to that tiny apartment in Brooklyn where they first started recorded 30 years ago. Bringing the songs back to the stage transported them back to the world they once called their own, where there was lots of room to roam and plenty of time to turn the mistakes of their 20-something-year-old selves into rhyme.
It was a world They Might Be Giants inhabited well. Back in the early days of their Dial-A-Song service, they fed music-hungry listeners straight from their brains. Write a song, record it, put it up instantly with no record company interference nonsense. Armed only with a telephone line, an ad in the back of the Village Voice, and a monumental amount of talent and wit, they were able to transcend the small confines of their Brooklyn home and tap into a connectivity with their audience no one else had dreamed was possible up until that point. They were modern day troubadours, as the narrator from “Alienation’s For The Rich” might say. And for a wonderful two hours, the songs that never got the love they deserved at The Bottom Line were resurrected to illustrious and long overdue applause.
If you missed this concert, fear not. They Might Be Giants will be playing two more “Pink Album” shows: one at the Wolf Den at Mohegan Sun in Connecticut on November 1st and the other in New York City at Terminal 5 on November 2nd.
Full set list from last night’s show:
I Hope That I Get Old Before I Die
She’s An Angel
Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head
Hide Away, Folk Family
Boat of Car
Youth Culture Killed My Dog
Rhythm Section Want Ad
(She Was A) Hotel Detective
Toddler Hi-Way (Avatars Of They Extended Version)
Chess Piece Face
Alienation’s For The Rich
Everything Right Is Wrong Again
Absolutely Bill’s Mood
Don’t Let’s Start
Nothing’s Gonna Change My Clothes
Damn Good Times
Birdhouse In Your Soul
Clap Your Hands
You’re On Fire
James K. Polk
Istanbul (Not Constantinople)
New York City