Know it or not, you've probably heard They Might Be Giants at some point in your life. Maybe you've heard "Boss of Me," a Grammy-Award-winning single that also served as the theme song for Malcolm in the Middle. Perhaps your friend showed you their gut-busting take on "Istanbul Not Constantinople." Or if you're my age, you might have been introduced to their music via their music videos on Cartoon Network. With their beefy résumé and critically acclaimed catalogue, TMBG have earned a reputation as a formidable songwriting team. What's shocking is that they're even better live.
The band stopped by Austin's La Zona Rosa last Friday to promote their latest two releases, Join Us and its companion EP, Album Raises New and Troubling Questions. Right off the bat, it was clear that theirs was no ordinary show. Bandleaders John Flansburgh and John Linnell had put together an act that was 60% music, 15% experimental film, 15% stand-up comedy, and 10% mass hysteria. Before launching into the gorgeous guitar-rock of "Can't Keep Johnny Down," Flansburgh quipped, "It's great to be in Austin, where the ratio of songwriters to bars is fifty-fifty." The crowd was loving it.
And what's not to love? When a band treats its fans as well as TMBG does, it's not hard to see why their shows sell out so fast. As the entire second row raised their iPhone cameras during the applause for "Johnny," Lindell laid down the law: "When it comes to fan recordings, we have a strict don't-give-a-rat's-ass policy."
"Not a single rat's ass shall be given," Flansburgh added in perfect deadpan.
Highlights of the night included a maximum overdrive take on "Istanbul," several surreal snippets of conversation between the duo's sock puppet avatars (filmed onstage and projected onto the wall behind them), a bizarre crowd control experiment in which TMBG bifurcated the audience and instructed them to chant along with primal noise-rock improvisations (stage left was "people" and stage right "apes"), and a five-minute transformation into an Ozzy Osbourne tribute band called "The Ozzataurs of Oz." It was at times disturbing, at times hilarious, and at no point unmemorable.
My favorite moment, though it's hard to pick, was probably when Lindell took a break from playing accordion to bust out a Kaoss Pad solo. As Lindell distorted and detuned various samples, emitting a subdued atonal squeal halfway between T-Pain and the mating call of a beluga whale, the entire crowd clapped and stomped along. I've never been to a dystopian hoedown, but now I can say I've seen the next best thing.
But what blew me away about the Giants' show wasn't just its weirdness. Honestly, I couldn't believe how much fun I was having. Sadly, it might be a while before TMBG comes our way again. In the meantime, I'd recommend checking out "Marty Beller Mask," "You Probably Get That A Lot," or "Judy Is Your Viet Nam."
Then imagine that band playing "Crazy Train," and you'll have an idea of what their show feels like.