They Might Be Giants
Vinyl Music Hall; Pensacola, FL • January 28, 2018
by Julio Diaz
It dawns on me, as I sit down to review They Might Be Giants’ latest show, that I’ve been watching this band live for nearly 30 years, going back to first seeing them in 1990 in Orlando. Back then, it was just John Flansburgh and John Linnell playing to backing tapes. Much has changed since then, but one thing has not: Consistently, year after year, TMBG can be counted on for fantastic live performances.
As was the case with their previous Pensacola performance, the show was dubbed “An Evening With They Might Be Giants.” That means no opening act, and typically means two sets from the band. This time, though, there was less of a break between two sets and more of a main set followed by six sets of varying length. No matter how you slice it, though, it was a full night, as the band rocketed through a whopping 28 songs over a couple of hours.
The set was well-distributed amongst the band’s lengthy discography, with perhaps a bit of extra emphasis on the Apollo 18 and Mink Car albums, as the band had been prepping complete album shows — they referred to these sets as “oblitunities” — and thus had been rehearsing songs from those albums, in particular. As those are two of the stronger albums in the band’s catalog, that formed the background of a very strong setlist, including classics like “Spider,” “The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight),” “Mammal” and “Fingertips” from the former album, and “Man, It’s So Loud in Here” and “Bangs” from the latter. The Mink Car material was particularly appreciated, as it hasn’t been a heavy presence in the band’s sets in recent years.
Of course, proper fealty was paid to promoting the new album — the band’s landmark 20th studio release, released just days before the show. Songs like “Answer” and “All Time What” fit in seamlessly, and if the crowd didn’t know all the words yet, it didn’t stop them from bopping along enthusiastically. John Linnell even pointed out a typo in the album’s liner notes when they played the song listed as “When the Light Comes On,” stating that the actual title is “When the Lights Come On.”
The band really seems to enjoy Pensacola (point of trivia, the current photo of Linnell and Flansburgh on Wikipedia was taken here, just a couple of blocks from Vinyl Music Hall), and on their third visit to Vinyl, were prepared with some patter about local landmarks as well as John Flansburgh’s insistence that they saved their best Florida show for the city.
As mentioned, the show sort of broke down into a long first set followed by several mini sets. The first set included the full band, these days consisting of guitarist Dan Miller, bassist Danny Weinkauf and drummer Marty Beller, and ranged from opening with “Number Three,” a track from the band’s 1986 debut album, through new material and even a few early B-sides like “Hey Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had a Deal” and “Spy.”
As Miller and Weikauf left the stage, Beller moved to a small electronic drum set for a stripped-down mini-set that hearkened back to the early days of Linnell and Flansburgh playing to backing tapes. The four-song set included favorites like “Older” and “A Self Called Nowhere” as well as the obscurity “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” a 2004 track that the band has only started performing live this year.
The full band then returned to the stage for a raucous five-song set that included Flood classics “Your Racist Friend” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” and closed with the bouncy favorite, “The Mesopotamians.” Together, these three sets felt like one “main” set, and the rest of the evening felt more like encores, with everyone leaving the stage and then returning after boisterous crowd demand.
All three “encores,” then, focused mainly on high-energy crowd favorites. Returning first with the epic 21 mini-song suite “Fingertips,” the band paired it with perhaps its most beloved single, “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” then left the stage. The second return featured “I Left My Body,” the debut single from the new I Like Fun, and the classic Cub cover, “New York City.” Brought back for the third time, the evening closed with a surprise, again dipping back to the Flood album for “Dead.” Despite this being something like my 13th They Might Be Giants show, it was my first time hearing that one live.
And that’s one of the best things about They Might Be Giants live: You never know what they’re going to pull out of their extensive discography. And while some may bemoan a missing favorite (say, “Ana Ng,” or indeed, ANYTHING from the classic Lincoln album), that’s almost beyond the point when the band still sounds so great and still has so many surprises up its collective sleeves.