MAHAIWE PERFORMING ARTS CENTER
They Might Be Giants
Friday, Sept 9, 2011
Review and photos by Seth Rogovoy
(GREAT BARRINGTON, Mass.) – They Might Be Giants are just too fun for words, and if the creative core of the group, the duo of John Linnell and John Flansburgh, aren’t still having fun after working together for the better part of three decades, they sure are doing an amazing job of pretending, given how much fun they seemed to be having themselves at the Mahaiwe Theatre on Friday night.
The words “glib” and “facile” have taken on negative connotations, but in their most positive connotations – in making things look easy and unpremeditated – this duo, performing as a five-piece band backed by bass, guitar, and drums, is a glib, facile outfit, churning out witty, catchy tunes one after the other, often drenched in both musical and lyrical irony, and equally glib and facile in their stage presence, which, particularly in Flansburgh’s frontman antics, veer from Las Vegas to James Brown to game-show host and back again.
I mean, these guys even performed two songs using sock puppets as avatars. And they used the word “avatar.”
As much as Flansburgh played the role of MC for the night, it was Linnell, rooted for the most part at keyboards and mic front and center (when he wasn’t occasionally veering off to play bass clarinet or accordion), who seemed to be steering this ship. He was a commanding presence, visually and vocally, and his steadiness, in contrast to Flansburgh’s hyperactivity, helped to ground the wacky stage show, which came with its own rack of lights, rear video projections, and other high-tech sonic touches.
The group barreled through a sampling of old favorites, deep catalog obscurities, and a good taste of brand new songs from its brand-new album album, Join Us, which sounds pretty much like it could have been recorded and released 30 years ago. And that’s meant as a compliment.
The band didn’t stint on tunes from its breakthrough album, Flood, offering “Whistling in the Dark” (played in the dark, no less); “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” “Particle Man,” “Istanbul (Not Constantinople,” and perhaps the group’s most perfect song ever, “Your Racist Friend.”
From the very beginning, Flansburgh got the crowd at the Mahaiwe up on its feet, and urged them to come up in front of the stage and fill the aisles. Many did, and the feeling in the house was as much Pearl Street or Hunter Center (MASS MoCA) as it was Mahaiwe. This was a good thing, as it was a well-behaved crowd that showed that a rock show, with conventional rock audience behavior, could be enjoyed at the Mahaiwe. For those who favored remaining in their seats, there were plenty of open ones vacated by those who chose to stand within reasonable distance of the stage and offering a prime view.
Flansburgh even divided the crowd in half at one point as the group played its version of “Planet of the Apes,” which consisted entirely of a musical vamp and the audience shouting “People people people” and “Apes apes apes” in turn. Flansburgh judged that “people” won this contest, and quite surprisingly, it really was no contest. What’s with that?
Mostly the concert was drenched in They Might Be Giants’s patented brand of irony – some might call it post-modernism. And although there were other pomo rock bands before them – Frank Zappa, of course, among others – the Giants really introduced the whole genre of geeky post-modernism that would become all the rage in the 1990s, along the way influencing far more commercially successful groups including Weezer, Ween, Ben Folds Five, and Barenaked Ladies.
How Flansburgh and Linnell – really the Lennon and McCartney of alternative rock – have been able to survive and thrive and continue to work together on their own terms all these years is a mystery, and one truly worth a scientific study.
For the rest of us, however, Friday night’s concert at the Mahaiwe will remain a memorable highlight of our concertgoing careers.
Opening act Jonathan Coulton was one of those one percent – or maybe 10 percent — of opening acts that had the crowd in the palm of his hands from the outset, and crowding around his merchandising table at intermission. Playing with a three piece band, Coulton was an apt choice to warm up the crowd, as his songs shared a lot with They Might Be Giants – he is a master of witty, economical songwriting, both musically and lyrically, an engaging performer, and he a bit of a punk-rock edge to his performance of songs about dead-end jobs in dead-end suburbs with people afflicted by dead-end relationships – somehow making it all recognizable and very funny.
Seth Rogovoy is an award-winning music critic.