They Might be Giants with Frank Black

I saw They Might be Giants at the GWU Lisner Auditorium a few hours ago. Once again, they've shown that there is really no doubt about their stature, contrary to what their name belies; and how! From the Steve Miller Band's Joker to Edgar Winter's Frankenstein, from Don't Let's Start to Spy, they thrilled and delighted a packed crowd here in DC.

An acoustic version of Frank Black opened and maybe he should've had a few other instruments accompanying so it wouldn't have exposed his glaring talent (or lack thereof) at singing and playing. I am being unduly harsh here, but the self-proclaimed Teenager of the Year managed to invoke quite a few yawns from me and the crowd around me. All the songs he did weren't very suited to be played in an acoustic set; they were short and punctuated, as opposed to stuff done by the Beatles, or his friends, TMBG themselves, which are more melodic and easily amenable to such indulgences. His singing wasn't anything spectacular though there were moments where one could recognise the characteristic voice that made the Pixies famous. His guitar playing was okay, and at best could be called mediocre, if one were in a particularly generous mood. Nothing he did prepared the crowd for was to come, and this is bad for an opening act, IMO.

TMBG began with a very toned-down and minismalistic introduction consisting of John Linell on the accordion, John Flansburgh on the guitar, and Brian Doherty on drums. They played Meet James Ensor, They'll need a Crane, and Number Three, before they moved on to a complete and current version of what they are: Jim O'Connor on the horns section and Tony Maimone on bass.

And it was a brilliant set that they played with lots and lots of incredibly catchy and witty songs from their vast repertoire. As Flansburgh said: "it comes right from here", pointing to his heart. I don't recall it all, but here're some highlights: Stomp Box and its counterpart in the previous album, Dig my Grave, make for great moshing and headbanging songs. There wasn't any moshing at all (Lisner has seats too close so you can barely move around, let alone slam dance) though and the behaviour of the audience in general was appreciated by Linell. The fast-paced rollicking version of The Sun is a Mass of Incadescent Gas (combined with Flansburgh's comments about paying attention in Astronomy (apparently he went to GWU for a semester)) was opportunely timed to get the crowd prepped for more great classics like She's an Angel and Don't Let's Start (from their first self-titled release), Your Racist Friend, Twisting, Whistling in the Dark, Mammal, The Statue Got me High, and Crane, and the new album's best stuff such as Sleeping in the Flowers, Extra Savoir-Faire, Dirt Bike (something about this song being a message from one band to another band was mentioned), AKA Driver, and The End of the Tour. Particular songs that were crowd-pleasers included Joker, Turn Around, Birdhouse in Your Soul (which always has the crowd bobbing up and down), Particle Man, I Palindrome I, and Istanbul (not Constantinople).

I had earlier seen them in May and I was a bit worried that this would simply be a repeat performance with no surprises, but I was completely wrong. Not only did I get to see them from the third row, but they did shuffle the set around a bit (they played a subdued Particle Man this time) and also did the Edgar Winter cover which I thought was very well done---faithful, but retaining a great deal of TMBGness. Notable absences were I should be allowed to Think and Thermostat (which I thought would've made for a great live songs from the new album John Henry), Kiss me Son of God (one of my favourites from Lincoln, their second album), Dinner Bell, etc.

"I saw the best minds of my generation 
 destroyed by madness, starving hysterical.
 I should be allowed to glue my poster 
 I should be allowed to think."
     ---They Might be Giants, I Should be Allowed to Think

I did have a problem with the vocals---I returned from the show convinced that Flansburgh cannot sing. Maybe he was tired from running around, but he certainly couldn't carry through on a lot of tunes and I thought Linnel did a fine job of singing; I think he has better voice and vocal range than Flansburgh. I also think Linell looks better, but that's me. I thought they were a bit too cute especially at the beginning with the park bench and all and during the time the band was introduced.

Encore 1: Flansburgh is no guitar virtuoso, but he could've convinced a lot of people in the audience that he was one with their rendition of the Frankenstein. The bass-drenched Snail Shell was another crowd-pleaser as was The Guitar. The second encore was Dedicated to Frank Black, a song that has wreaked havoc on both the live shows I've seen: Spy. For a group that once was reported to have said that they don't believe in visual effects but just in the music, TMGB relied on a few, particularly to enhance Doherty's drumming (which was excellent) visually, and for their rendition of Spy (red flashing police lights).

Memorable quote that cracked me up, which some people actually believed; Flansburgh: "Thank you, we're glad to be back at the 9:30 club."

"I built a little empire out of some crazy garbage
 called the blood of the exploited working class.
 But they've overcome their shyness, 
 now they're calling me `Your Highness',
 and a world screams, `Kiss Me, Son of God'."
       ---They Might be Giants, Kiss Me Son of God

Music ram-blings || Ram Samudrala || || October 18, 1994