They Might Be Giants, McGlohon Theater, February 14, 2011

>> Wednesday, February 15, 2012

My sister gave us the tickets. It was actually--I hate to admit I recently had a birthday--a really awesome birthday present sent via e-mail a month ago. Awesome because, (a) I've liked They Might Be Giants since Flood, admittedly late to the party (it was their third album and there were several already-classic tunes on the first two) and (b) because it was my first Valentine's Day with the ScatterKat, another TMBG fan from way-back-when (is there a nerd of my generation who isn't or wasn't a TMBG fan?) and spending the evening at such a concert with one's amour was the best gift a sister could have given her unworthy bro.

So this is hardly an objective evaluation. I would like to think any observations I might have on last night's show can be objectively verified (possibly with the help of expensive lasers, because that would be very exciting), but I admit I was in an excited state, very attuned and receptive to fun.

I'm trying to remember the last time I'd been to a show at the McGlohon, which is a tiny venue built inside an old converted church, complete with stained glass windows and everything. It isn't necessarily as sexy as a show in an actual unconverted church, though the acoustics have been tweaked. (Although this is where we have to acknowledge, deal with and move past the fact that they had bass problems--too much of it--throughout much of the show last night.) But it's still a damn fine place to see a concert.

Jonathan Coulton opened. Coulton's a former computer programmer turned nerd icon, probably best known for penning the really funny end credits theme from the video game Portal and the nerd-zombie-anthem "Re: Your Brains". But then I suspect you either knew that already or still don't care. Anyway, it was a fun time, and, yes, there was an audience singalong for "Re: Your Brains".

As for TMBG, even after seeing countless live clips (this was my first actual TMBG show), I'm still surprised at just how hard these guys actually rock which seems like a strange thing even writing it. TMBG's loopy, smart, surreal lyrics and poppy hooks have always made them a band one associates (in a good way) with children's songs, and kid-aimed/friendly records like NO! and Here Comes Science seemed like inevitable and appropriate steps. So much so, it's easy to forget that the Johns (Flansburgh and Linnell, the core and founding members of the band, which started as a duet and eventually has expanded to a quintet of regulars) really began their career in the early 1980s in Brooklyn as a branch off the art school scene Talking Heads and similarly-flavored New Wave acts had established in New York nearly ten years earlier. It's funny: I think to some degree, TMBG's affection for stage props, nerdy oddball lyrics about science and history, outré instrumentation, old songbook selections (e.g. "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)", "Why Does The Sun Shine (The Sun Is a Mass of Incandescent Gas)"), and unusual arrangements can be confused with childishness (in a good way, I mean), when really it's childlike, not in an innocent way, but in a surrealist way; I'm not sure I'm getting the idea across, actually--this seems like the kind of thing where there's probably some really apt French word or phrase to describe what I'm trying to poke at, "naïve," in a very specific sense, comes to mind but still doesn't seem quite right, and "surreal" is a word that has become degraded.

Whatever. TMBG's show, promoting a new album, Join Us, that the band rightly considers a back-to-roots record, was very much a raucous rock show by an arthouse band with obvious punk and new wave influences. Even the puppet show parts, or possibly especially the puppet show parts, since one of the puppet show interludes that was sort of musically a break from TMBG's expected métier involved the Johns' sock-puppet avatars performing an extremely deadpan and by-the-book faithful cover of Black Sabbath's "Paranoid".

It was "Birdhouse In Your Soul", three songs into the set, that brought the crowd to their feet and they stayed there. I'm ambivalent about how much that's a good thing, to be honest: after all, it is very possibly my favorite TMBG song, at the same time, there's always something, I dunno how to put it except to say, something about a band getting more of a reaction off a twenty-year-old classic than out of the new stuff they might be leading off with.

This was something the ScatterKat and I actually had sort of an argument about on the way over to the show, actually. The ScatterKat takes the view that performers ought to give the people what they want and paid for, and that someone like David Bowie who pretty much says he's never playing a thirty-or-forty-year-old song ever again is, while she understands where he's coming from, sort of cheating his fans. I take the view that there's usually something sad about someone like the Violent Femmes doing a show where, even though they have a new record out and maybe it's pretty darn good, almost their entire setlist is made up of songs from their first album and Why Do Birds Sing? The ScatterKat would settle for a compromise, something around fifty/fifty old-stuff-everybody-loves/material-nobody's-ever-heard. I'm stubborn and feel like if a band wants to do a setlist of completely unreleased material, the audience ought to feel privileged just to be there and if they don't, fuck 'em. You don't have to agree with me, I totally get where ScatterKat is coming from even if she's wrong. (Written, do I even need to say, lovingly, teasingly, tongue-planted-in-cheek.)

TMBG went the ScatterKat-preferred route, and I don't blame them; indeed, they did a fine job mixing-and-matching thirty-something years worth of material, going back at least as far as Lincoln and hitting material from most of their albums over the course of a vivacious set. Most importantly, and this is really what I hope to see from an act, whatever they're playing, they seemed to have a pretty good time up there, and I hope we were a satisfactory audience. They gave us two encores, which I hope was a sign of approval and not obligation.

ScatterKat and I danced some, and kissed, and held hands, and did other ridiculously schmoopy things. This has nothing to do with the show, other than the fact that my evaluation of the good time to be had may have been colored a little by circumstances. You'll probably find it more useful to know that They Might Be Giants played fast, and loud, and they brought out the stylophones and puppets and played a long, full set covering the breadth of their career. Get out there if they swing by you, and, if you can, take someone you can kiss.



6 comments:

Robbin Wednesday, February 15, 2012 at 8:39:00 PM EST  

Weeeee!!!! Or Wiiiiiii!!! (If you want to be all french about it.) I'm so glad that it was fun and that you had a nice ladyfriend to go to the show with you. I was like, hmmmm, I want to get my bro concert tickets to something and Kenny Chesney was sold out. I know. Sucks. But then I saw TMBG was playing and thought it might be the next best thing. Amazing that I saw it in time and there were good seats available. And kind of cool it was in a church even if the bass was bad. I knew that Tuesdays you usually go to church, so that worked out too! Yay!! Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

David Wednesday, February 15, 2012 at 8:52:00 PM EST  

JoCo and TMBG?

Teh Envy, I haz it.

Sounds like a marvelous way to spend Valentine's Day - and if you can't be schmoopy on February 14, when can you? :)

Anonymous,  Wednesday, February 15, 2012 at 10:47:00 PM EST  

Coulton came to my attention first from Code Monkey, rather than the other two. I sometimes wonder if the people who love the first verse ever listen to the other two.

John the Scientist Thursday, February 16, 2012 at 6:11:00 AM EST  

I'm stubborn and feel like if a band wants to do a setlist of completely unreleased material, the audience ought to feel privileged just to be there and if they don't, fuck 'em.

Or if an artist were to insist that Greedo shot first, the audience ought to feel privileged to be able to watch a re-worked classic in 3D? Not really trying to pull your chain here, but I agree with Kat because I see those things as 2 sides of the same coin.

Eric Thursday, February 16, 2012 at 9:47:00 AM EST  

John, the distinction is that my real problems with Lucas are (1) that he's making his earlier cuts unavailable and (2) that he tells increasingly outrageous and petty lies to justify it (e.g. trying to say that the original edit of Star Wars was intended to run the way it now does, it's just that the cut--and, by implication, the original editor, who happens to be his ex-wife, was incompetent).

A better analogy might be Paul McCartney's reissue of The Beatles' Let It Be in a remixed version stripping most of producer Phil Spector's production choices, but only if McCartney had reissued the remix as Let It Be instead of calling it Let It Be--Naked and if he'd had the original cut pulled from record store shelves, and if he'd claimed the original cut no longer existed and anybody who remembered it a particular way was at best mistaken and at worst mentally ill (c.f. Lucas' comment about Star Wars fans insisting Han shot first because they want him to be a cold-blooded killer, implying that they're projecting some kind of personal bloodlust onto the character).

Note that McCartney didn't actually do any of that Lucasian business: you can buy both versions of Let It Be. You can buy them both at the same time. You can buy them both in various formats. You can play them both back-to-back or just pick one as your favorite and play nothing else. McCartney, so far as I know, remains agnostic as to which one fans "should" like, preferring (as far as I know) to offer listeners both the version that has always existed and the version he now apparently has a personal aesthetic preference for.

These are studio versions, of course. A live performance is (hopefully) a distinct event that is (again, hopefully) different from all other live performances to whatever degree. There isn't really an analogy between a film and a live performance, though there are certainly analogies between a film and a studio recording.

In short, it's not two sides of the same coin, it actually isn't even the same currency.

I think my last criticism of Lucas pointed out--and only partly because Lucas himself raised the issue--that other directors have cut and recut older films. Ridley Scott is notorious for this, having recut both Alien and Blade Runner for theatre and DVD re-releases. What sets Scott apart is the fact that he's offered up all of the various cuts and, while he's expressed his preferences for one or another, has made it clear an audience isn't somehow defective for preferring an alternative. In a similar vein, I think it's worth noting that Terry Gilliam was very active in helping Criterion create the Brazil boxed set, a set that includes a recut version of his film that he had nothing to do with and was basically made to spite him because he was fighting with the studio over the film when it was made (the "Love Conquers All" version of the film, which is pretty abysmal by any standard); Gilliam was certainly in a position to pull his support and assistance from the Criterion box, but he went ahead with it and gamely provided advice and comment on including with the various recuts of the film a version that was pointedly hostile to his vision--because Gilliam understands that the "Love Conquers All" cut has historic value and, ironically, artistic value insofar as it contrasts with his personal vision and (when taken with the other cuts) informs a viewer as to how a piece of film art is made and distributed.

Like I think I said earlier, if Lucas borrowed a page from one of these other directors, he wouldn't be reviled, he'd be a geek hero.

John the Scientist Thursday, February 16, 2012 at 4:48:00 PM EST  

I simply meant that in the broader sense the audience of a long-standing band is now a stakeholder in the band. Not a major stakeholder (hence the other side of the coin from Lucas, for exactly the reasons you mention), but a stakeholder nonetheless.

Skynyrd, even in their current incarnation, is going to get booed if they don't play Freebird. Now, that's my least favorite of all their songs, but I understand why they are going to play it. I, myself, want to hear Simple Man and I Know a Little.

Also, the ugly truth is a lot of these bands are past their prime, and pretending to be currently relevant isn't fooling anyone. Not recognizing this feels like ingratitude for past fan support, you know?

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