They Might Be Giants are their own legacy. With 30 years of music in a catalog that includes almost 900 recorded songs, even planning a setlist must be a challenge. The band is John Flansburgh (guitar) and John Linnell (keys), but their long-time touring ensemble was with them, including Dan Weinkauf (bass), Dan Miller (guitar), and Marty Beller (drums). This current tour, in support of their most recent studio album (17th!), I Like Fun, also includes trumpet player, Curt Ramm. Linnell also spent a couple songs on the contra-alto clarinet, and several with his signature accordion.
Tuesday’s stop at the Madison Theater had a recurring gimmick to help: the band promised to play their entire 1990 album, Flood. The audience found out during the opening banter that the band intended to play it “in sequence”, which turned out to be all the songs from the album, but in reverse order. They Might Be Giants opened for They Might Be Giants, as there were no other acts on the bill. They performed a “regular” mixed set of favorites from their catalog in an initial 50-minute set, followed by an intermission and then the reverse Flood set. The show ended with 2 short encores.
In the spirit of honesty, I am a TMBG fan and have been for decades. This is the 9th time I’ve seen them live, I own most of the albums, I have joined fan clubs and street teams, and I’ve transcribed parts to songs for the accordion. Their music, songwriting, and orchestrations are incredible, and Linnell and Flansburgh have obviously spent a long career curating their techniques and perfecting their skills and music complexities. I was going to enjoy this show.
The live show has evolved over the years, but it is now very clearly a show for their fans. While there was one unexpected cover of Destiny’s Child’s 1999 hit, “Bills, Bills, Bills,”the set list was a arranged to be a quick selection of fan favorites spanning the decades. The band is at their best when they’re taking something the audience knows really well and tweaking it for the performance. Much of the show seems routine, since the band knows the music, knows the show, and knows their stage dynamics. But this is the other reason the show is for fans, the audience came to hear their favorite songs, but also to see their favorite musicians craft them. The little adjustments are fun for the band, and they’re fun for the crowd. The nuance and change from the recordings everyone in the room knows and how they get translated to the stage IS the show. The band doesn’t dance or have a lively stage presence (although their lighting designer was spectacular!), but they crafted new details out of every single song they performed.
It’s astounding how well the sets are choreographed. Anytime someone is not playing, they’re off the stage, quick and sneaky, then back on in an instant when they’re needed. John Linnell’s microphone etiquette is impeccable, he’s always the perfect distance to the mic, and he knows exactly when to adjust the stand left or right as he moves in front of the keyboard. And John Flansburgh tries so hard to make it seem like the show is spontaneous; he’s funny, humble, and clever on the mic as builds space between songs, but it’s clear the band knows what is going on and how long he’ll chat.
There were 4 songs off of the new album, which was released in January 2018. While the audience didn’t have all the lyrics memorized like all the older tracks, it was obvious that the crowd knew the songs and dug into the performance. The band’s new songs are really stellar and mix with the band’s time-tested tracks exceptionally well. Absent from the set were any songs off of their four “childrens” albums, or their previous five “adult” studio albums, so the listing really is the new album and the old material. The selection was mostly a sing-along, and a fun recollection of the groups expansive catalog.
Almost forgotten was the clever intro video, which was a mashup of Run-DMC’s cover of Walk This Wayoverdubbed with an electro-pop adjustment of They Might Be Giants’ last track off of I Like Fun, Last Wave. Imagine a combination of Bad Lip Reading and catchy, expert songwriting.
Damn Good Times
I Left My Body
Hey, Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had A Deal
Bills, Bills, Bills
Don’t Let’s Start
Wicked Little Critta
All Time What
I Like Fun
New York City
Flood album in reverse sequence
How Can I Sing Like A Girl? (acoustic duet)