I have seen the future, and I know what Williams needs. We need people to fire large cannons at us, preferably on a regular basis, preferably filled with confetti. Think what this would do for another humdrum Baxter lunch, another boring Bronfman lecture: love, camaraderie and high spirits would erupt and fill the room. Students would not only dance, they would bounce up and down and chant. The cannon which exploded in the middle of that paean to Western expansionism, “James K. Polk,” was only one element of the They Might Be Giants show. Opposing walls of sound and bodies pushed and pulled the crowd throughout the night. The atmosphere could be exhilarating or unbearable, depending on your predilections and where you stood.
They Might Be Giants, John Flansburgh and John Linnell of Brooklyn, New York, have developed a unique and eccentric musical style. On their albums, bizarre and occasionally unlistenable moments of experimentation coexist with the loopy pop anthems (“Birdhouse in Your Soul”) for which they are best known. At first I was skeptical that a mainstream Williams audience would warm to the band’s idiosyncrasies. The first song seemed to bear out these suspicions. In the unfamiliar “You’ll Never Believe Me,” John Linnell’s pessimistic and repetitive vocals dragged and droned. The band gathered steam with their next song, “Particle Man,” but the tempo was still a little slow, the playing jangly and uneven.
Through the guitar-driven “New York City,” and as John Linnell wailed out “Don’t Let’s Start,” the band’s momentum grew. For the country-tinged “Counterfeit Faker,” Linnell teased sounds from his accordion. By the time the band orchestrated “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” (the Johns were the apes, the rhythm section were the people, and the crowd raised their fist and chanted for apes or people in turn) the audience knew they were in for a show unlike any other. Extrovert guitarist John Flansburgh belted it out for “XTC versus Adam Ant.” On stage its full slamming impact blew away the paltry studio version. Songs like the final encore, “The Sun Is a Mass of Incandescent Gas,” (a 50s educational song played at double speed) made one realize the value of seeing this band live. It is a particularly valuable experience when the concert is free.
With an ample and impressive set list of over 25 songs and four encores, there was room for old favorites like “Birdhouse,” “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” and “Ana Ng,” and for new weirdness like the strangely exultant “Dr. Worm,” which will appear on their upcoming live album, Severe Tire Damage.
Bass player Pete Velasquez also excelled. He seemed to have a great time during “The Guitar,” stretching the sounds of his instrument into Primus-esque percussion. Other highlights of the show: eerie, Chuckie-like, talking puppet heads for “Exquisite Dead Guy;” “Shoehorn with Teeth” at fast-forward speeds; the all-encompassing conga line for “No One Knows My Plan;” and “Spy.”
The Giants prove that with enough creativity, anything can become an instrument, from the shifting volumes of mikes waved around amateur-style to the crowd itself. In this manner, Flansburgh also used the microphone stand, which he brought out triumphantly for the beat-intensive, bluesy “Lie Still, Little Bottle.” The stick remained on stage as John sang to it lovingly for the lounge-style song which followed. From “S-e-x-x-y” to “Dig My Grave,” the last four songs before the encores formed a seamless progression: sex, nasty breakup, paranoia, then death. The two Johns seemed the happiest when singing about the death part.
The opening band, Double Dong, resembled what might happen if the Ephlats wandered, by mistake, into the Rocky Horror Mansion and had unthinkable experiments performed upon them. One might paraphrase all their various unprintable lyrics with the following: “We have no instruments. We have no talent. We have only body parts to thrust in front of you.” And thrust they did. As campy performance art, they were mildly diverting; musically, they sucked.
What makes They Might Be Giants different from them? Aren’t the Giants all about gimmicks — lights, colors, fog, giant faces in the background, props and hokey tricks? Maybe so, but there is more to them. For one thing, their songs actually have melody, and you can tell the songs apart. The Giants really try to break down traditional concert dichotomies: audience, revolving spotlights, and heads on sticks all become part of the performance. These extras are not there to compensate for lackluster songs, they are part of the songs, integrated into a seamless whole.
As the concert went on, the band displayed such a range of instrumentation that there had to be something for everyone. Twelve years after their first album, their inventiveness and range continue to amaze.
In other news, John Linnell played shoe-less, for the second time in his career. His socks were black.