They Might Be Giants‘ sold-out First Avenue show on Saturday was both a celebration of old and a ramp-up for the Tuesday release of their 17th studio album. It was also a great way to end a Record Store Day they had started with a set at the Electric Fetus earlier that afternoon.
The two Johns behind the Brooklyn-based band (a.k.a. TMBG) have spent so much time writing, recording and touring together over the last 30 years that they could be excused for letting their live act sag a bit—but instead, the duo led their band in an energetic show complete with guitar choreography, a dial-in skit, and some really cool polka-dot lighting (and, of course, a polka song).
With no opener, it was pure TMBG in a two-hour show with two encores. Their audience turned the night into a shameless adult singalong as hundreds of Gen-X-ers belted out the smart, kid-friendly songs the band is known for. But despite TMBG’s appeal for younger audiences, the First Ave show wasn’t for kids. Even the robotic characters John Flansburgh voiced in the skit dropped enough grown-up words to put the audience’s mouths to shame.
From the first chords of “The Mesopotamians,” TMBG blasted the room with their poppy and informative music. They kept up the variety, alternating older and even older songs (“Man, It’s So Loud in Here,” “Number Three”) with tracks off their new album, Glean, which comes out tomorrow. They also threw in a cover of Destiny’s Child’s “Bills, Bills, Bills.”
John Linnell anchored the group with his keyboard parked center-stage. His compatriot John Flansburgh rarely stayed still, flitting with his mic stand and wireless guitar (which he still manages to trip over) from corner to corner and jumping onto the drum platform stage right. The green and orange polka-dot lighting scheme complemented their hijinks, as did the disco ball when it made an appearance during their spacier songs.
During the skit halfway through the first set, Linnell quipped with Flansburgh’s voiceover roles of Mama and Papa They Might Be Giants calling into the band’s Dial-A-Song service asking, “How are my five little boys? You’re my jewels…all five of you came into the world at the same time. Like a litter. It was creepy.” Mama TMBG reassured the band before hanging up, “You’ve done so much for yourself in spite of all the adversity; the roadblocks you gave yourself.”
Roadblocks aside, the band are dropping one track every week in 2015 on a revamp of Dial-A-Song. Glean‘s release marks week 16 of the service, and the 15-song album will include many from Dial-A-Song. The band plan to release two more albums in 2015, and the first is going to be a children’s album.
The Johns—along with guitarist Dan Miller, bassist Danny Weinkauf, and drummer Marty Beller—kept it upbeat with “The Famous Polka,” “Doctor Worm,” and “Minneapolis,” their First Avenue venue song (which they told Mark Wheat about during their 2007 Current session). They slowed things down for “The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight).” Then all of a sudden, it was just the two Johns onstage, Linnell with his accordion instead of his keyboard for “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” With just the two of them and no drummer to be seen, it was a nice nod to their early ’80s beginnings. They brought the whole band back onstage for end-of-set songs including “James K. Polk” and “Ana Ng.”
When they returned for an encore, Flansburgh thanked First Avenue and the Electric Fetus, where the band had played that afternoon for Record Store Day, for “just having a store called Electric Fetus.” They played “Mammal” and “Older,” during which they stopped their guitars like the arms of a clock à la their 1999 music video. They ended the encore with “Birdhouse in Your Soul.”
For a second encore, they played “Robot Parade,” and Linnell unanchored himself to jump up and down with Flansburgh, keeping one hand on the keys.
One hand on the music, the other flailing in mid-air in time with the band while Flansburgh’s best robot voice sang out—what a fitting way for They Might Be Giants to close another evening at First Avenue.
They Might Be Giants set list:
Music Jail, Pt. 1 & 2
Can’t Keep Johnny Down
Bills, Bills, Bills (Destiny’s Child cover)
When Will You Die
Skit: Mom TMBG Phone Call
Man, It’s So Loud In Here
Why Does The Sun Shine?
Good To Be Alive
The Famous Polka
The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)
Istanbul (Not Constantinople) (The Four Lads cover)
With The Dark
Call You Mom
James K. Polk
They’ll Need a Crane
Let Me Tell You About My Operation
Birdhouse in Your Soul
Writer Hailey Colwell is a journalism major at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities and a co-director of Theatre Corrobora. Photographer Bridget Bennett is also a student at the University of Minnesota.