Concert Review: They Might Be Giants at Music Hall of Williamsburg: 12/29/2012
There aren’t a lot of bands that I’ve seen live more than once in the same year. There are even fewer bands that I’ve seen live more than twice in my lifetime. And then there’s They Might Be Giants, the only band that I’ve likely seen ten or more times over the years, dating back to 1996 (at the now long-gone Tradewinds in Sea Bright, New Jersey) until my most recent TMBG show this past Saturday night at the Music Hall of Williamsburg.
Earlier this year I saw TMBG perform at Terminal 5 and, for the first time in a long time, I found their show a bit underwhelming. Terminal 5 is not a great venue for a band like this (anyone in the audience more than 25 feet from the stage would have a hard time hearing the banter and “participating”), the set was long but not filled with enough music, the Avatars (the TMBG sock puppet show which I find ranges somewhere between barely tolerable and immensely painful) went on for what felt like an eternity, and the show itself just felt scattered. For the first time, I felt like TMBG was trying too hard to be funny and forgot what made them great in the first place – clever music. The show was still a good one, but not by TMBG standards.
When they announced a 3-night run at Music Hall of Williamsburg back in July, culminating in a New Year’s Eve show, I was pleased but not supremely excited. For the first time in a while I didn’t buy tickets to a local TMBG show the moment they went on sale. The thought occurred to me that perhaps their better days were finally behind them. On the other hand, TMBG was the perfect band to ring in the New Year – you just know they’d have something special planned for that show. Plus, this was a chance to see them in a venue more suited to their performance style, and home in Brooklyn where they belong. When all was said and done, for reasons that are a little beyond me, I wound up at the first of the three shows and not at the New Year’s celebration. Luckily, TMBG was everything I’ve always wanted them to be – brilliant, rocking, and hilarious!
Since the band has what feels like thousands of songs (it’s been 10 years since the 52 song Dial-a-Song!), their concerts are often themed, and this one was no different. It consisted mainly of the first side of Flood, the “controversial” second side of Lincoln (as John Linnell said, “If you flip over your mp3, there are other songs there”), and unreleased songs from their forthcoming album, Nanobots.  That said, the setlist was not way arranged by album. This led to some peculiar but amusing moments, such as when “Theme from Flood” was played around song 3 and then was followed by something off of Lincoln. The crowd was young – some may have been born before the release of Flood! – but that hardly matters when hits like “They’ll Need A Crane,” “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” “Doctor Worm,” and “Birdhouse In Your Soul” are played. The junior crowd sang along in delight. Also, while new songs (and in particular unreleased songs) generally bring a crowd down, Nanobots has some obvious hits that didn’t allow the audience to let up. I particularly enjoyed “Circular Karate Chop”, played for the first ever time that night.
Overall the set was tight, as John Flansburgh ironically often referenced the use of a setlist (a recurring joke throughout all three nights). By “set” I mean the entire show experience, because with a They Might Be Giants show, the quality is determined not just by the choice and arrangement of songs to be played, but by the between-song banter and the use of props, instruments and guest singers. With that in mind, I’m not at all surprised at this choice of recurring joke; for the first time in a while, it seemed like the Johns very methodically chose and prepared the entire presentation.
The show was filled with banter, which at its best sounds ad-libbed while undoubtedly being mostly prepared material, supplemented of course based on crowd reaction (Flansburgh’s hilarious “I think this is a telescope crowd” was a highlight). This was the magic that TMBG had been missing of late and was recaptured on this first night in Brooklyn. The Avatars made a brief appearance (they can’t help themselves), and Robin Goldwasser sucked a bit of life out of the place with her “Dr. Evil” thing, but overall the show didn’t feel even a bit forced. When they closed out the first encore with “Clap Your Hands,” and then encore two with “Mr. Me,” the crowd was clapping and stamping and singing along in genuinely high spirits. “The Mesopotamians” and “Mr. Me” were perfect choices to send out a thoroughly enjoyable evening.
After the 2 hour show, Flansburgh posted the following to the group’s blog:
Just home from 1st of 3 sold out MHoW shows. Amazing crowd. Feeling rusty from months off, but band was awesome and the horns dazzling as always. Great to get some Nanobots songs into the world!
I couldn’t agree more. And from what I hear, night two was more of the same TMBG goodness. Over on Gothamist, which reviewed night two, one reviewer was quoted as saying “I’ve seen TMBG many times over the last 16 years, and this was one of the better shows I’ve seen. I even enjoyed the puppets, which are usually a low point for me. Overall, the band sounds great right now, and I’m excited for the new album.” 50 words to perfectly sum up what I just said in 1,000.
 Tradewinds was a nightclub that occasionally hosted gigs, approximately once a month in the summer months. Click on that link and you’ll notice that the Tradewinds show prior to TMBG in ’93 was the unbelievably hot-at-the-time band “Live”, while the one after TMBG was the Ramones. Even at age 15 I was smart enough to avoid Live, but apparently I wasn’t smart enough to catch the Ramones. Sigh.