They Might Be Giants is not for the uninitiated. Upon a quick superficial listen one might come to the conclusion that the band is merely quirky pop rock (perhaps among the likes of Cake or the Dead Milkmen), but a deeper listening reveals challenging, dense and intelligent (and consistently fun and entertaining) songwriting, music and lyrics. Hell, the band pretty much sums up the idea of a "cult band" with songs comprised of excruciatingly specific scientific facts and Zappa-esque interludes. That said, if you own every They Might Be Giants album since their self-titled 1986 debut, you're in for a treat live with invigorating arrangements and an off the cuff performance complete with drum and bass solos. And if you vaguely recall some offhand video by the band on MTV back in 1994, you might be in for a whole other kind of treat.
Kicking things off with "You're on Fire," the first track to their latest album "Nanobots", John Linnell (vocals, keyboards, accordian and bass sax) stood slight and partially obscured behind his keyboard crooning as the rest of the band seemingly settled in. Linnell's better half, John Flansburgh (guitar and vocals), struck quite the presence on stage decked out in a dapper blazer and high-resting Telecaster and roaming about the stage with mic and guitar in tow. Immediately after the second song of the set the two Johns began their hilarious onstage banter. Flansburgh, heavier and goofier, jousted the slender and more straight-laced Linnell just like any perfect comedy duo. And these guys were funny as hell.
Humor is a key element to They Might Be Giants. Sometimes, a song title emits laughter as evidenced by the introduction of "Circular Karate Chop" or "Call You Mom." Injected into each and every one of their songs and their shows, this comedic repertoire is what separates the band from contemporaries such as Weezer, Talking Heads or Ben Folds Five (shout out to early label mates, the Dead Milkmen, who are also funny as s--t). Still, certain routines tended to drag a bit. Endlessly playing out a joke or idea a couple of times, especially with the "Avatar" puppet skit, where the duo performed a bit and a song with silly sock puppets. Okay. Yeah, I get it.
TMBG played for around two hours. And they played a hefty amount of material ranging from early rarities like "Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head" (which may or may not have prompted the aforementioned sock puppet skit) and classic TMBG standards such as "Istanbul," "Ana Ng" and "Birdhouse in Your Soul." Particularly outstanding were the guitars of Dan Miller and John Flansburgh, both of which maintain a beautiful and rugged tone and also contain a natural sense of editing themselves. Keyboards were constantly spewing bizarre sound effects and intricate note-y runs throughout given songs. These guys were obviously having fun with the music, and they sounded great doing it. The passion for the material was clear among numbers like "Celebration."
The first hour of the show was captivating, hilarious and charming. When not goofing off, John Flansburgh leaped about the stage and lashed at his guitar as if he was a British Invasion minion. Co-guitarist Dan Miller impressed as he traded off intricate leads on guitar and keyboard. Miller could be considered a secret weapon of sorts for the band with his intelligent guitar noodling, he really stepped out as he performed a flamenco type of intro for "Istanbul." The song also allowed Flansburgh to flex his bellowing vocals to impressive and comedic levels.
A handful of new tracks were performed, such as "Nanobots," which featured Flansburgh's amusing robotic background vocals. Also distributed throughout the night were favorites like "Whistling in the Dark," and "The Mesopotamians."
The band also took little detours with extraordinary drum solos, numerous keyboard and guitar solos and even a sick bass solo. And while these moments were impressive, sometimes it got out of hand and seemed to lose the attention of the audience, leaving us waiting for them to get back to maybe "Why Does the Sun Shine."
Although I think highly of TMBG and can dig a handful of their songs (i.e. "Ana Ng" and "Don't Let's Start"), after listening to these guys for two hours it became a bit trying. And the band's ability to switch and swap styles at the drop of a dime is impressive and intriguing. Don't take that the wrong way, They Might Be Giants are endlessly creative, virtuosic musicians, outstanding entertainers and absolutely hilarious. Seriously, the two Johns had everyone (including my cynical ass) in busting out laughing. And their gratitude towards St. Louis was greatly appreciated and reciprocated.