Reigning Quirk-Meisters of the Alternative Scene They Might Be Giants Crush It at Indy’s Vogue Theater.
If there’s anything one can say about the aggressive whimsicality of They Might Be Giants, it’s this: they’re pros at it. Although, perhaps “pros” is the wrong word. After all, “pro” conjures images of someone trying very hard to maintain a stage persona. An image that really doesn’t do TMBG credit. While their performance is just that, a performance, there’s an underlying sincerity to their eccentricity that saves them. Specifically, it saves them from being twee.
That sincerity, brothers and sisters, was on full display that fateful Wednesday at the Vogue. If you didn’t manage to catch the show, I can say only this: I feel deeply and truly sorry for you.
I grabbed a seat for myself on the left wing of the Vogue’s mezzanine, since it’s one the few places in the venue that has tables. Which I need if I’m going to take (nominally) legible notes. This does have a few trade-offs, like needed to stand up to actually see the band for example. However, it’s typically a satisfactory arrangement and that night I needed to take plenty of notes. Because, brothers and sisters, there was plenty going on to take notes about.
There was no opening act, instead They Might Be Giants capered onto the stage with a cheery fanfare. The kind that a guest on a 50s talk show would get. I have to admit, it fit. They have, after all, always had a pop culture obsession that would make Chuck Klosterman nervous. And like most obsessives, they would never, could never, pass up a chance to express that obsession.
After a little onstage banter, TMBG tore in to “Damn Good Times” like hyenas into steak tartare. As far as opening numbers go, you could certainly do worse and soon the crowd was wanting more. And hey, after listening to that bouncing beat and those rockabilly guitar riffs, who wouldn’t want more?
And oh, brothers and sisters, did they ever get it.
“It Was the Loveliest Party that I’d Ever Attended.”
TMBG’s setlist drew on nearly everything the band had ever done. Basically, they played a mix culled from their first couple of albums, I.E. “Ana Eng”, along with songs from their newest album, I Like Fun. Of course, since this tour is meant to promote that album, they need to include a few bits from it. But I digress.
Highlights from the setlist included “Your Racist Friend”, “James K. Polk,” “The Mesopotamians”, and a personal favorite, “Let Me Tell You About My Operation” from TMBG”s 2015 album Glean. In fact, there were quite a few songs from that particular album and nothing at all from the album that followed it, 2016’s Phone Power. I can’t imagine why, both collect material from the band Dial-A-Song project after all. But then again, there are only so many songs you can play in one night.
The, at times stark, differences between what these songs sound like live versus recorded threw one fact into sharp relief: TMBG is definitely a studio band. That statement isn’t meant as a criticism, after all some of the best bands in the world are studio acts. Rather, it highlighted an aspect of their music that the polished album versions of their songs hid. Namely, the rougher live material made me realize just how improvisational TMBG sounds. Now, I’m not claiming that improvisation is their primary method of creating music. In fact, I think their general method is quite the opposite. No, what I mean is that TMBG always sounds like they’re winging it in some grand, mad way and therein lies part of their charm.
Credit Where It’s Due
Can I just say that John Linnell and John Flansburgh are two very funny men? Because they are. Almost, though certainly not as, good as the music was listening to the Johns banter with each other. The verbal humor had an absurdist bent to it, something that carried over into the musical performances. After all, how else can you characterize interrupting “Particle Man” with a performance of Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again”?
Also, a shout out to the non-John members of They Might Be Giants. Dan Miller’s guitar was as suited to the band’s sound as ever, with his solos and rhythm work meshing with the John’s like a Swiss watch. Likewise, no other drummer could work as well with TMBG as the estimable Marty Beller (who may be Whitney Houston in disguise, if you take the lyrics to “Marty Beller Mask” at face value). But the real MVP that night was Curt Ramm, the band’s trumpet player. TMBG frequently includes brass in its music, and Ramm was just the man to provide. His bright, shimmering trumpet work gave every section it featured in a lift, and the whole show was better for it. Not that the show wasn’t great already, of course.
And there’s really nothing more to say. I gained a new perspective on one of my favorite bands and they gave a great show. I wish them well on their tour an hope that they stop by Indy again sometime.
Keep Listening, everybody.