Posted by Steven Knowles.
Reviewed on 30th January 2016.
Live at Brudenell Social Club on Wednesday, 27th January 2016
As you probably know, They Might Be Giants - New Yorkers John Flansburgh and John Linnell, and their band - are an unconventional, quirky, cartoon indie outfit. And they brought their 30-ish years of unconventional, quirky, cartoon indie to the Brudenell on Wednesday night.
Personally, I have a strange relationship with TMBG. Their 1990 album 'Flood', containing breakthrough superhit 'Birdhouse In Your Soul', was a constant in my cassette player (look it up, youngsters) and, alongside 'Groove is in the Heart' by Deee-Lite and the Stone Roses' 'One Love' was a staple in my transition period to becoming an indie kid, after the chart pop and mainstream rock of my late childhood.
So - I have long standing and genuine affection.
However, beyond that album I only really know a smattering of highlights from the rest of their career, and they have 18 studio albums, stretching from the mid-1980s to the present day. A completist I am not.
On the way to the sold-out venue I am unsure how it'll go. I presume crowd will all be over 40? Will they all be quirky too? In my mind, TMBG operate in a not dissimilar ballpark to the B-52s, so might it actually be a bit irritating and/or tedious? On arrival we find there's no support act and they'll be arriving onstage around 8.15, so it's a Springsteenesque helping of TMBG. Please let them be more like other bands I mentally associate them with - Ben Folds Five, say - than the B-52s. No one wants 3 hours of 'Love Shack'....
Well the crowd is actually a noticeably diverse cross section of people - I mean from really young to really old, a wide variety of ages, stages and styles. I think this bodes well. And then they emerge, and from the moment John Flansburgh hails "this phenomenal auditorium I do not know the name of" they have our rapt attention.
It's quite amazing - they start singing and it takes you back in time 25 years. Their unique voices are somehow the absolute sound of nostalgia, especially John Linnell's. Like a sport commentator you have heard broadcasting for years that you suddenly see interviewed on screen and it gives you a whole new, in-your-face perspective.
What's more, they are funny. Especially John Flansburgh. Not just a little above the level of murmured thankyous between songs but actually genuinely witty, and sharp, and spontaneous. The songs are great, and the hilarious spoken interludes are just as appealing. And when I say the songs are great, I mean they are just from a different dimension, and so full of creativity and variety and warmth and imagination you do genuinely wonder how they've maintained 30 years of this. There's more in the way of ideas in a couple of TMBG tracks than there is in many a band's entire back catalogue. As I mentioned at the top, there's definitely a cartoony quality to what they do, and actually the B-52s reference is not entirely off the mark in some parts of some songs - but there's also parts Gogol Bordello, parts Weezer or Blink-182, parts music hall, swing, sci-fi soundtrack and so much more besides. Lyrically they are, of course, famously eccentric and we veer from worms that are not real doctors but are real worms, to character assassinations of ex-US Presidents, to impressions of raindrops. Of course we do.
What have I been DOING since 'Flood' came out??
Anyway, we rattle through a fantastically enjoyable couple of hours, taking in a potential feud with Destiny's Child ("dear They Might Be Giants, eat a bowl of dicks, love The Nice One from Destiny's Child"), 'pulling a Costello' by playing a new song that no-one knows, but promising to play it extra slowly so we can take it all in, extended clap-alongs, a beautiful segue halfway through 'Particle Man' (from 'Flood' - yay) into Dolly Parton's 'Here You Come Again' and back, and all manner of musical, lyrical and charismatical dexterity.
It's a joy to behold and frankly, when they claim to be "giving you 120%.... but then it'd need to be 160% or 170% to be a competent show" you can't fail to be charmed.
For those interested in such matters, the set takes in very early TMBG ('Don't Let's Start', 'Where Your Eyes Don't Go'), into the late 1990s ('Dr. Worm', 'Older') and spanned right across to much more recent offerings, such as 'Can't Keep Johnny Down' and 'Cloisonne'. Despite a set of around 30 songs, they DID NOT play 'Ana Ng', 'Boss of Me' or 'Istanbul (Not Constantinople)'.
And yes, they do play 'Birdhouse In Your Soul'. Final song of the third encore. Once in full, glorious They Might Be Giants context, you do wonder how it became such a mainstream hit... and rejoice in the fact that it did.
In summary, I need to go and buy more They Might Be Giants albums.