They Might Be Giants at the 930 Club

IMG_5580High school pals John Linnell and John Flansburgh have pretty much stayed true to their eccentric approach to pop music, as a guitar and accordion duo singing about science, history and weird things  might.

Despite a successful foray into children’s music, where they’ve recorded a handful of albums, earned Grammys, and scored music for Mickey Mouse, they’re back with a new non-kids album in “I Like Fun” out this year, and a long tour to accompany it.

While they once made fun of their endless touring with a fanciful They Might Be Giants Tour 2040 T-shirt that pictured them as doddering on the road decades from now, they’re still in great shape at ages 57 and 58.

Playing a sold out show at the 930 Club in D.C. Saturday night, it would seem they might have trepidation with their fate, judging from the title of their opening song “Let’s Get This Over With,” the first of seven from the new album.

But instead, they played a long and generous, two-set, 35-song show, full of favorites from throughout their 36 years with a pretty good sampling representing at least 14 of their 20 albums.

It was a strong show in part because of the audience — not the over-excitable sing-along middle schoolers as it seemed to be last time I saw them, but fans who grew up with the band, loved the old stuff and appreciated hearing the new concoctions, which were as smart and melodic as ever.

While there was a segment at the start of the second set that featured just the duo (a Quiet Storm portion that featured videos of lightning), the show featured their longtime band of guitarist Dan Miller, bassist Danny Weinkauf and drummer Marty Beller — who were now all clearly in view of Linnell for the first time, he gleefully told the audience, since he had only recently installed a rearview mirror on his keyboard.

To that solid quintet, Curt Ramm strolled out to provide trumpet six songs in, a nice surprise and big addition.

They’ve been tinkering a bit with the setlist on the tour, such that Flansburgh said he had already flubbed the order early in the show. That meant no “Ana Ng” in D.C., but there were surprises from very long ago, from the instrumental “The Famous Polka” to “Purple Toupee” and “Shoehorn with Teeth.”

They didn’t seem to adjust the approach for the Nation’s Capital for especially political songs, eschewing, say, “James K. Polk” for the campaign song from the previous cycle, “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.”

Things like “Your Racist Friend” continue to have resonance; “The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)” brought arm waving and singalong as the disco ball dispersed light; “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” was freshened by a new approach and a long intro and exit from Ramm.

Pop gems like “Don’t Let’s Start,” “Twisting” and “Birdhouse in Your Soul” were well placed, and it was surprising how much of things as demanding as the constantly changing “Fingertips” came back to the memory (this despite the fact that the song was originally chopped into 21 different tracks for the express reason to be changed up each listen through the CD shuffle feature).

The chatter between songs was genuine and funny stuff; it’s clear these are a couple of witty guys who are fun to spend an evening with. They ought to host a late night comedy and music show.

While They Might Be Giants has been associated with an array of creative graphic artists over the years, the videos for the show were relatively constrained. There were lipstick cameras that suddenly gave big closeups of Linnell’s keyboard or Beller’s drum, one of those endless repetition loops that made it look like an orchestra on stage and the simple effect of showing the audience on screen upside down.

The best video bit opened the second set, when a recording of the new song “Last Wave” played along to the familiar MTV clip of Aerosmith and Run DMC doing “Walk This Way” — so well synched that it appeared the song was written to match the 1986 music video.

The band’s live choices of covers seemed a little dated, from the Destiny’s Child turn of the century “Bills, Bills, Bills” to their drifting into Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again” from “Particle Man.”

And mortality crept in as well, in grim birthday song “Older,” “Let Me Tell You About My Operation” and “When Will You Die” (thankfully these were not all played in a row).

But aside from being a children’s music machine, which they have already proved they could easily do, They Might Be Giants showed they were still a vital force of gleefully odd music that also hews to the best in American pop traditions after all this time. They may still make that 2040 tour shirt relevant after all.

The setlist for They Might Be Giants Saturday was:

  • “Let’s Get This Over With”
  • “Damn Good Times”
  • “The Mesopotamians”
  • “This Microphone”
  • “I Left My Body”
  • “Your Racist Friend”
  • “Hey, Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had a Deal”
  • “The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)”
  • “Whistling in the Dark”
  • “All Time What”
  • “Which Describes How You’re Feeling”
  • “Authenticity Trip”
  • “When Will You Die”
  • “Bills, Bills, Bills”
  • “Spy”
  • “Last Wave”
  • “Older”
  • “I Like Fun”
  • “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too”
  • “A Self Called Nowhere”
  • “The Famous Polka”
  • “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”
  • “Wicked Little Critta”
  • “Twisting”
  • “Don’t Let’s Start”
  • “Let Me Tell You About My Operation”
  • “Shoehorn With Teeth”
  • “Purple Toupee”
  • “Mrs. Bluebeard”
  • “New York City”
  • “Fingertips”
  • “How Can I Sing Like a Girl?”
  • “Birdhouse in Your Soul”
  • “Particle Man” / “Here You Come Again”
  • “Doctor Worm”

 

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