They Might Be Giants 30th Anniversary Show, Jonathan Coulton
UCLA Royce Hall
Better than … watching a Clarissa Explains It All marathon.
Royce Hall isn't the sort of venue where you dance and stand on your toes to see during a concert. Your ticket comes with an assigned seat and, typically, you stay there for the duration of the show, offering polite applause throughout the performance. Things are different, though, when They Might Be Giants play. For Saturday night's 30th anniversary show, the Johns (Flansburgh and Linnell, respectively) weren't going to let us stay in our seats.
Early on in the concert, Flansburgh, the John with the guitar, asked for someone to turn on the house lights. Then he invited everyone to move forward and crowd the aisles. The band then burst into “Clap Your Hands,” a vintage soul-styled jam from their children's album, No! This wasn't a kids' show — that happened earlier in the day — but adults are just as good at clapping their hands and stomping their feet as the little ones.
They followed this by dividing the crowd in half in a people vs. apes battle royale for “Battle of the Planet of the Apes.” If you were on the People side, you were supposed to holler “People.” Those of us on the Apes side screamed Apes. People were declared the winners of the shouting match, much to the dismay of the Apes.
TMBG have been weaving in and out of pop culture for a couple decades, from the posters that appeared on Clarissa Darling's bedroom walls in Clarissa Explains It All and the Tiny Toons Adventures music videos to their wealth of TV and film music contributions. (This includes “Dr. Evil” from Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me, which they performed at Royce Hall.) But none of that necessarily gives TMBG their stickiness.
Last night was my first TMBG show. One thing that happens when you see this band play for the first time is that you start to understand why they're a cult phenomenon. They put on a show that's as fun as it is tight. The Johns and the rest of the band move from rock to jazz, with many stops in between, seamlessly. They even had puppet segments, one of which got all metal with versions of Ozzy Osbourne's “Crazy Train” and Black Sabbath's “Paranoid.”
The Johns crack jokes at nearly every interval. They goofed on their choice of instruments, which in this case was Linnell's bass clarinet. They repeatedly pointed out how much of the show consisted of music from their 1988 sophomore effort, Lincoln.
That album, now something of an alternative music classic, had a substantial role in last night's show. Among the songs they played were “Cowtown” and “Shoehorn with Teeth.” They also closed the main portion of the set with “Ana Ng,” perhaps the saddest song that doesn't sound like a tearjerker. (“Ana Ng and I are getting old/And we still haven't walked the glow of each other's majestic presence.”)
It certainly wasn't a Lincoln-only night, though. The band threw in other fan favorites like “Dr. Worm” and “Birdhouse in Your Soul.” They played new songs too, including “Marty Beller Mask” from Album Raises New and Troubling Questions. The song is inspired by the group's drummer, Marty Beller.
The highlight of the show came at the very end of the night in the form of an extended version of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” Filled with brass and thunderous drums, the song went on, even after the point when Flansburgh said they were told to stop playing. While the band eventually ceased playing, the song didn't necessarily end there. I still can't get it out of my head.
Opening act Jonathan Coulton was the perfect complement to TMBG's performance. The computer programmer-turned-singer/songwriter writes songs about the sad life of dwarf planet Pluto and a guy who “may or may not be Rick Springfield” impressing ladies in French. Any guy who can make references to henchmen in a song (“Skullcrusher Mountain”) is cool in my book.
Personal Bias: I fell for “Birdhouse in Your Soul” ages ago because of the Jason and the Argonauts reference.
The crowd: People who appreciate songs that reference Jason and the Argonauts.
Random Notebook Dump: Puppets!