Concert Review: They Might Be Giants at the Stone Pony: August 8, 2013
How many times can I see They Might Be Giants perform live before their quirky sense of humor starts to get old? Last night’s show at the Stone Pony was my third time seeing them this year (including an in-store performance at Academy Record Annex where I got to meet John & John) and, as I previously mentioned, I’ve seen them countless times over the years, dating back to 1996 (at the now long-gone Tradewinds in Sea Bright, New Jersey). Recently that question had been nagging me. In my review of their late December show at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, I mentioned the TMBG show I’d seen just before that one, in 2012 at Terminal 5 where, for the first time in a long time, the band slightly disappointed me. Terminal 5 was too large, the set was long but not filled with enough music, and the intolerable Avatars (the TMBG sock puppets) went on for an eternity. The show was all over the place and (quoting myself) “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.”
Something must have clicked in the middle of 2012 though, because since then TMBG has been as great as ever. There was the aforementioned 3-night run at Music Hall of Williamsburg, culminating in a New Year’s Eve show (I missed that but was there for show 1 on the 29th), where TMBG lived up to my high expectations, entertaining the crowd with rocking music and wit. Then the in-store, where they played a startling eight songs, not only from new album Nanobots but also all-time hits including “New York City,” “Doctor Worm” and “The Mesopotamians,” then stayed until each and every person there got every item they wanted signed. Perhaps it was the recording of Nanobots – their best effort in quite some time – that provided them with the shot in the arm that they needed. Whatever it was, last night’s performance – the first one on the Nanobots tour – was TMBG at their best.
Firstly, once again the band rocked. There were no children’s songs (although I like them) and for the first time in forever, no Avatars of They. No Avatars!! Hooray!! There were hardly any gimmicks at all; the only part of the show that felt gimmick-like was the battle for the planet of the apes, where fortunately my side (the apes) won. The tone was set very early in the show when a girl yelled out for “Birdhouse in Your Soul.” (Links to the individual songs in the setlist below.) John Linnell laughed and said “we’ll get to that one,” with John Flansburgh explaining “yes, one thing we try to do is play the songs that people want to hear. It’s something we’ve learned to be successful as a rock band.” (Was this a very subtle dig at Brian Fallon? OK, probably not. But Fallon could have learned a thing or two.) Flansburgh went on to explain some other rules they’ve learned to help sell albums and tickets (e.g., face the audience) with Linnell playing spolier, saying that the Eagles played with their backs to the audience and sold out a lot of shows. But play the hits is what they did.
It isn’t that hard to play the hits when you have so many songs to choose from, as TMBG does. But you could tell that they were poised to really please the Asbury Park audience on this night. Two of the first three songs were locally flavored “Asbury Park” and “New York City.” They actually played all five of what I consider my top 5 TMBG songs: “New York City”, “The Mesopotamians,” “Don’t Lets Start,” “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” and main set closer “Doctor Worm.” They broke out just about every instrument you can imagine, from traditional guitars (Flansburgh and Dan Miller), bass (Danny Weinkauf) drums (Marty Beller) and keyboards (Linnell) to oddities like the melodica (Weinkaupf), the saxophone (Linnell), the stylophone (Flansburgh), the trombone, trumpet and clarinet (courtesy of the Tricerachops Horns, who joined the band about midway through the set) and of course, the accordion (Linnell). They used “f**ked up vocals” on “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” and “Nanobots”, with the Johns having an auto-tuned back and forth on the former and Flansburgh’s robot voice delighting the crowd on the latter.
And the hits kept on coming. Take a look at the setlist below and you’ll find that a large number of the band’s most popular songs were performed. [Aside: A notable exception is “Particle Man.” I find that interesting because in December I wrote, “They also of course played Particle Man, but for whatever reason this is the one song from Flood that simply does not hold up. The crowd reaction for this song, once arguably the band’s biggest hit, was lackluster. And I don’t disagree.” Did TMBG notice that (or better yet, read my review) and decide to shelve the song? I like to think so.] Of course there were a number of songs played off of Nanobots as well, but unlike what often happens when a band deviates from their hit songs to play from a new album, the crowd was enthusiastic for the new stuff. This is likely because (a) the songs were well-chosen (I personally would have chosen those exact songs if I were choosing from Nanobots), (b) the album is terrific, and (c) the album rocks hard (and in one case where it doesn’t – “Black Ops” – the song was completely reworked for the show as a rocker). All in all TMBG really delivered – the crowd was treated to a show that lasted a full two hours, complete with two separate encores. Given a powerful trio of songs to end the main set, a fun encore that began with serious hand clapping and solo work from the band members, and a great second encore of “Withered Hope” and “Mr. Me”, I don’t think anyone walked away even a smidgen disappointed this time around.
I have some good photos from the show below as well as the full setlist. Looks like TMBG is back! I’m sure I’ll be enjoying them live for years to come.
Black Ops (rockin’)
Istanbul (Not Constantinople) (John & John)