Their transition from a quirky adult band to an earnest children’s band isn’t as seamless as it is inevitable.
I was pretty much done with They Might Be Giants from the beginning. I had one album -- Apollo 18, or something like that, the one with the giant squid on the cover --which I had gotten in a “Buy-1-Get-3-Free” music club situation. I listened to it, thought, “So this is They Might Be Giants,” and then never listened to it again. I don’t know what to say other than some bands speak to you and some bands don’t, and when it came to TMBG, I was flat out deaf. A friend put that “Istanbul was Constantinople” song on a mix tape once, which I found catchy enough. But that sounded about right to me: You own a single TMBG disc so you can put that one complementary song on a mix tape. Otherwise, I can’t fathom why someone would own a whole record. Don’t even talk to me about a person who owns two.
But I’m recently a father, and parenthood encourages new appreciations, so when I heard that TMBG were enjoying a second life, as it were, as a children’s band, I was open to giving them another shot.
Over the course of the past seven years, the band has recorded three children’s albums --No! (2002), Here Come the ABCs (2005), and Here Come the 123s (2008). A fourth, Here Comes Science drops in September. The cynic may accuse the band of opportunism: Many of those alternative rockers who bought Flood in 1990 surely have (at least) toddlers by now, and those who eschewed the New Kids then might feel similarly about the Wiggles now. Clearly there’s a market. The only wonder is that more bands haven’t yet capitalized. (I nominate the Violent Femmes for Here Come the Food Groups. “Everybody’s got to CHEW it up, CHEW it up, CHEW it up to-ni-ight.”)
Believe it or not, I have been known, from time to time, to sympathize with the cynics. This time, though, I’m inclined to go the other way. Let’s face it, TMBG have never been a fully grown-up band. Their appeal, such as it is, taps into an appreciation of the silly and the playful, which is why those of us who take rock ‘n’ roll too seriously were never able to fully commit. Their transition from a quirky adult band to an earnest children’s band isn’t as seamless as it is inevitable.
Apparently I’m not the only one who is so accepting of the band’s new direction, as an estimated 7,000 people of all ages flocked to Brooklyn’s Prospect Park on a recent Saturday afternoon for TMBG’s free children’s show (there was a $3 suggested donation at the door), courtesy of the Celebrate Brooklyn! festival. A half hour before the show was supposed to begin the line to get in stretched for a quarter of a mile.
“It’s like a Grateful Dead show,” said a woman as she walked by, pushing a stroller.
“We’re going to smoke some graham crackers,” said Avery’s dad.
“Roll some Cheerios,” said Jonah’s mom, my wife.
Inside the venue, there was stroller parking to the right and beer to the left, which all too succinctly encapsulated the Before and After of my life. I kept my head down and denied them both. There was seating up front, mostly occupied by the older kids (“older” here meaning the six- to eight-year-olds). We were with a ten-month-old and an eleven-and-a-half-month-old, so we claimed our space with a blanket at the back.
There were kids everywhere.
“If ever a show should begin on time,” I said to Avery’s dad, “this is the one. Now is not the time to be a rock star.”
“They’re backstage eating all of the brown M&M’s,” he replied.
In fact, not only did they not begin on time, but 20 minutes after the scheduled 4:00 pm start time, the “opening band” took the stage: A woman from a local radio station who read not one but two children’s books and who held up the pictures for all to see. You want to hear a really terrible idea? On an afternoon that is threatening rain when thousands of parents have schlepped strollers and diaper bags up and down subway steps to hear some live music in the park, and when the kids are wired and primed for said music, delay the opening of the show by reading a book that only the first two rows can see. That’s a really terrible idea.
But by 4:45 pm the band had taken the stage, and all of that “Are you kidding me?” incredulity had passed. This is the part of the review where I would normally break down the set list and laud the high points and lament the low and grumble about an obscure favorite that they didn’t play and conclude with “all in all it was a night to remember,” but just about every song I heard that afternoon I was hearing for the first time.
I remember one that stated “I never go to work,” which found me singing along by the song’s end, so that’s good. Another had a lyric something like “twist a zero and you have an eight”, which I thought was clever enough. Confetti exploded from an air canon a couple of times, much to the kids’ delight, and they really are good musicians. The band’s main members, John Flansburgh and John Linnell, were rounded out by a full band including a quite nice brass section.
But most of the show was spent just enjoying time with the kids. The blankets, especially in the back, became a kind of communal space. Strange kids toddled over and played with our toys. Jonah crawled down and picked up someone else’s ball. Avery was I don’t even know where most of the time.
To the other adults we said, “It’s cool. She can play with it if she want”.
To the kids we said, “Don’t eat the grass”.
Shout-outs aside, TMBG weren’t really playing to the back row, which was just as well because we weren’t really listening anyway. It’s about the experience more than anything else, and, unlike other concerts, the music was only incidental. It’s about the meaning of Saturday and being outside and with your kid and your wife and your friends and other kids and other parents and sneaking a sip of contraband wine every now and again and happy thoughts keeping the rain at bay. I’m appreciative of TMBG for providing the opportunity. I may even have to buy a record (or -- gasp -- two).
As 6:00 pm neared, Jonah was ready for a nap, but the crowd had thinned out, and there was some room closer to the stage and to the center. I hoisted him on my shoulders and we went up. Jonah really likes being on my shoulders. He grips my hair and slaps my head in excitement. He especially likes it when I walk in an exaggerated manner, my knees bending low with each step.
By the time we got settled, they were gearing up for the encore. The horns were playing, the music snaking through the air in a vaguely Far East kind of way. Sure enough, it was “Istanbul”. As the song hit its stride, I moved my shoulders and stomped my feet to the beat. I sang along, loudly and unashamed. Occasionally I twirled. We were surrounded by mothers and fathers and sons and daughters and friends.
My boy was on my shoulders. I could feel him smiling.