They Might Be Giants + Jonathan Coulton
28 Jan 2012: Royce Hall, UCLA Los Angeles
It was like something out of a Charlton Heston movie. On one side of the battlefield, damn dirty apes raised their hairy fists in defiance of their human oppressors. On the opposing end, the people united to overcome this newly empowered foe. Between these warring factions patrolled a deadly laser beam that would indiscriminately slice through anything in its path.
And this wasn’t even the weirdest thing that happened at They Might Be Giants’ 30th anniversary show.
John Flansburgh and John Linnell are skilled stewards of tomfoolery. So perhaps they sing songs about their drummer’s secret identity being Whitney Houston (“Marty Beller Mask”) and of squirmy physicians (“Doctor Worm”), but there is something insanely catchy about their melodies. They are buoyant survivors of the 1980s that soldier on into the bleak 20-teens, fighting apathy with rainbows and sock puppets.
And no, that’s not a metaphor. The Johns introduced their “special guests”, the Avatars of They, to the tune of Ozzy Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” and Black Sabbath’s “Paranoia”. These knitted friends perched on the hands of the zany Giants and rattled off a Vaudevillian sketch. They sang a jingle about a magical drug called the Pander Pill, which made the puppets butter up the audience with compliments. And then have a bad psychedelic trip.
Thankfully, there was nothing but good highs at this anniversary gig. It opened strongly with a fellow melodic yuckster, Jonathan Coulton. With a knack for the nerdy, this former software engineer strummed winners like “I’m Your Moon”, a reassuring love song from former planet Pluto’s satellite.
This Warren Zevon look-alike barreled through power-pop goofiness (“Je Suis Rick Springfield”) and honest depictions of parenthood (“You Ruined Everything” in the nicest way, he croons in an ode to his daughter). An adept setup to the epic dorkiness of the night.
For their pearl anniversary, They Might Be Giants relied heavily on tunes from 1988’s Lincoln (Bar/None). But, they chortled, with the album only clocking it at 39 minutes, it wouldn’t make for a very worthwhile show if that’s all they played. There were the obvious non-Lincoln standouts, such as the cheery “Birdhouse in Your Soul”. And there was a whole lot of shaking going on, as the Johns and their backing band would trade off mic stands from track to track. Bassist Danny Weinkauf danced merrily and leapt off the drum riser. Flansburgh, emulating Johnny Depp with his purple shades and cresting hairline, treated his guitar like a musket. He then gave Pete Townshend a run for his money with his emphatic windmills.
Props must be given to the man on the trumpet, Mark Pender. Borrowed from Conan O’Brien’s house band, the bald brass virtuoso added heat to the setlist. The exotic rock hit “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” off 1990’s Flood (Elektra) almost trekked into sultry territory in Pender’s hands. Linnell took every chance possible to make the crowd aware of what a gift Pender possessed. Not to be outdone, however, Linnell busted out his hearty baritone clarinet on a couple of jams midway through the concert.
One advantage comic bands such as They Might Be Giants have when performing live is that built-in sense of humor other artists don’t. Sitting through awkward banter by a self-righteous indie group can be tantamount to torture. But when done by pros like TMBG, the laughter is as essential to the experience as the music. Pop-culture references got kicked around like soccer balls: The Avatars were joined by a sock puppet Meg Ryan (depending on whom you asked, this version might have been an improvement on her currently Botoxed self). One of the fellows busted out a purposely awful George Harrison impression, right after admitting that he’d “never felt more like Art Garfunkle.” And they took a swing at Mick Jagger and the boys when they compared their own “Celebration” to an infamous Glimmer Twins number. (“I don’t even think the Rolling Stones like “Emotional Rescue”, one of the Johns said with a giggle.)
Also making a cameo was the robust Robin “Goldie” Goldwasser, the eeeeeevil vocalist behind “Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me’s” theme song. Just so happens that Goldwasser is Flansburgh’s wife. The cheeky collaboration had the fans yearning for a Mike Myers comeback.
The retrospective concert—as well as the two excellent albums They Might Be Giants released in 2011, Join Us and Album Raises New and Troubling Questions—was an absolute joy. Here’s wishing John Linnell and John Flansburgh another 30 years of mirthful music.