They Might Be Giants
House of Blues / Anaheim, California • November 16, 2011
I’ve been in a concert-going dry spell for over a year. I broke that spell the other night by seeing They Might Be Giants when they “occupied” the House of Blues in Anaheim, at the Left Coast’s Downtown Disney, and it was like being caught in a flood of clever musical one-liners and nods to every pop song styling known to the human ear.
For more than two decades, their fans have sustained this quirky, brainy power pop duo that evolved from a novelty act into a bona fide rock band. Wednesday night, the subversive and sly Jon Flansburgh and John Linnell sustained their fans with over two hours of their oddball, off-the-wall tunes and humor. They even slid in a G N’ R reference somehow. Their playlist covered pretty much their entire career, from their breakthrough second and third albums Lincoln and Flood, through their hipster kiddie albums of late, like Here Comes Science and Here Come the ABCs, right on up to their latest albums — the regular studio album Join Us and the rarities collection Album Raises Troubling Questions. Their entire career seemed to capture the hearts of those of us who first heard them in college, our kids, and now our grandkids.
After an opening medley of set warmers that included “Celebration” and “Why Does the Sun Shine?” a shaggy, bespectacled Flansburgh asked the sold-out crowd, in danger of violating both Anaheim’s and Disney’s fire codes, “How the Devil Are You?” The crowd roared in delight. The early part of the concert focused on songs from Lincoln, including a rollicking version of “They’ll Need a Crane.” The audience cheered when Linnell brought out his “milk chocolate-filled accordion,” as Flansburgh described it. Linnell said it was a tribute to GWAR, which played the same venue days earlier after guitarist Cory Smoot had died on the band’s bus. Linnell’s accordion wizardry featured heavily on “Particle Man,” followed up by a lovely, quiet version of “Piece of Dirt.”
Flansburgh quickly established himself as master of ceremonies, about their early days playing at the Lone Star Café in NYC, a “secret shithole” where the margarita blenders drowned out the duo’s acoustic guitar and accordion arrangements. “We were defeated by the blender of the margarita machine.” Guitarist Dan Miller gave an acoustic rendition of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” which segued into a full-blown rockout by the band. Miller’s virtuosity was showcased throughout the evening. They also played a haunting version of “Damn Good Times,” and then stirred the crowd up with a bellowing rendition of “The Ape Club.”
They rocked it up with the new “Judy Is Your Vietnam,” off of Join Us, cranking the bass and drums to heavy metal decibel levels — with strobe lights! It was about that time they brought out guest singer Robin “Goldie” Goldwasser (Flanburgh’s wife), who “occupied” center stage for their pedestrian safety song, “In the Middle.” That was followed by the funny “We Live in a Dump.”
Another highlight of the evening was when they segued into their “Avatars of They” sock-puppet routine, which they’ve been doing since 2009. They literally put their hands inside the puppet heads and rocked out to Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid” before easing into some puppet theater schtick involving their new sponsor Epic Fail Bologni and a Meg Ryan headshot that was obviously not Meg Ryan (possibly for legal reasons?). The avatars declared they wanted to occupy our brains, plenty of room up there. They also were upset that the Giants had stolen their tape (a side project they did with James Cameron, yuck yuck), but they had no legal representation! After putting the lawyer-less puppets back into their suitcases, the human counterparts resumed to playing, as Linnell dragged out a bass clarinet for “Cloisonne.” They went into a bouncy “Alphabet of Nations,” breaking to sell their latest merch: a nearly six-foot-tall Join Us poster, mockingly described as “medium quality art.”
After an energetic rave-up of “Purple Toupee,” they shifted into “Careful What You Pack” and then exploded into a marathon umpteen-song medley where they basically threw out one line of a song before moving onto the next, culminating in a 1970s-era arena rock-style finish. Just when you thought you’d heard enough, or thought they’d run out of steam, they revved up again for “When Will You Die” and “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” the official closer.
Still wanting to give back to their fans, TMBG came out for two more encores, sandwiching in the hilarious homage to their drummer, “Marty Beller Mask” off of Troubling Questions. “Thank you super much,” Flansburgh said, before going into the Anaheim venue song, which includes a line about staying home watching “Death Wish III” instead of coming to the HOB. Finally, they sent us home with a lovely rendition of “New York City.” All I can say to that is “Thank you super much, TMBG.” And thank you for bringing the flood.
They Might Be Giants: www.theymightbegiants.com