It appears that They Might Be Giants are timeless. It had been ten years or more since I last saw them, probably around the release of 1998’s John Henry, but they didn’t seem much different. Keyboardist (and notably bass clarinetist for one song) John Linnell especially looked exactly the same as last time. They still exude a geeky charm with their silly songs about spaceships and presidents and how things work, all of which are enthusiastically received by their hipster nerd audience. You know, the kind in Doctor Who T-shirts. Despite the time lapse since the last time I had been in the same room with TMBG, I still knew at least half the songs, as they went back to classic records like Flood and Factory Showroom repeatedly. In fact the second song out of the gate was the ridiculously catchy “New York City,” a cover song from the latter record that they have made their own, and which may be my favorite song of theirs. When “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” showed up only a few songs later I figured I could leave happy right then.
Of course I didn’t, because there was still lots of fun to come. After playing “The Guitar,” which mashes up “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” with their original lyrics, Linnell admitted that was probably the millionth time they had played that song, and all he could think about the whole time was how hard to was to sing “space ship” like it was two separate words, “because I care,” he added. The entire band was having an issue with stage insecurity because they claimed the stage at the historic Turner Hall slanted down, and in fact, had gotten worse since sound check, so that it felt like at any moment they may tumble off the stage into the audience. Even so, they claimed to love playing here. And the sold out crowd loved them right back. Turner Hall does have its charms, from the magical women’s room door which opens easily despite being ten times the size of a regular door to the hilarious photos of former directors hanging along the stairs (seriously, check out the eyebrows on that dude), but sound quality is not one of them. It sounds like a barn, because basically it is. Still, that didn’t take away from my overall enjoyment.
That’s partly because I was with a huge fan, who excitedly exclaimed “this is my favorite part!” when the two Johns (the other is Flansburgh who mostly plays guitar) donned sock puppets, or “avatars” as they called them, to make a few jokes and sing “He’s Loco.” Appropriately, his favorite song is “Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head,” though it seems like that is the song the avatars should have sang. Having just seen them a few months ago in Chicago, he declared Milwaukee’s set list was better and more varied. They played several songs from new release Nanobots, including the catchy title track and an ode to Nicholas Tesla, who I am beginning to appreciate was pretty much the ultimate genius. I enjoyed those just as much as the songs I knew. The requisite trotting out of the hit “Birdhouse in Your Soul” in the first encore was still great, and the accordion and voice version of “How Can I Sing Like a Girl” from Factory Showroom was an unexpected surprise.
I was worried that since I hadn’t seen them in so long I wasn’t going to know many songs or enjoy them as much as I had all those years ago. I was wrong. Like I said at the beginning, They Might Be Giants are timeless. It remains to be seen if openers Moon Hooch have the same longevity. Odds are against it, but if the very vocally enthusiastic audience tonight was any indication they should do well. The trio paired a drummer who played a hypnotic dance beat with a pair of hyperactive saxophonists. It was something different and interesting, it’s no wonder TMBG picked them as tourmates.
They Might Be Giants