Live Review: They Might Be Giantsby Mitch Goldman
Moore Theatre, Seattle, WA 11/17/96
It seems like just yesterday when They Might Be Giants were denizens of the Manhatten music scene, playing to backing tapes and packing in locals for their brief but entertaining shows at the Village Gate and the late lamented Ritz Theatre in New York City. But the musical landscape has clearly changed…"alternative" music has become corporate rock, and TMBG (John Flansberg, guitars and vocals, and John Linnell, keyboards, accordion and vocals) are firmly in the middle of the market, playing for the last four years with a full backup band and recording for a major label since the turn of the decade.
And so the quirkiness of those early performances is subdued by the full band approach; these Giants rock as much as they pose clever, witty musical conundrums. While Flansberg's instrumentation threatened to be overwhelmed by new lead guitarist Eric Schermerhorn (who played on about half the tunes…the guy's great, but does Flansberg really need any help with the guitar parts?), the band sounded best on the quieter numbers, the mix particularly respectful during the less power-chord laden tunes. TMBG managed to plow through much of their new album Factory Showroom while still touching all phases of their career, and though there are always songs left out you'd wished they had played (I particularly miss "Purple Toupee" and "They'll Need A Crane"), it's hard to argue with 90 minutes of joyful, moving pop.
Opening with Showroom's "Sexxy" (a sort of sequel to the John Henry cut "Spy" from 1994), Flansberg took the second number as well, a cover of opening band Cub's song "New York City". As the version on Factory Showroom proves, this is a seriously infectious pop number that's even more joyous live. Linnell led the band through "Snail Shell" and "Metal Detector", proving once again that he's both less diverse and more satisfying a songwriter than his alter John. Linnell's nasal voice is not as warm or versatile as Flansberg's, but Linnell's character comes through in all of his songs, from the hesitant posture of "Don't Let's Start" and "Snail Shell" to the wry wordplay of a painfully slow "Ana Ng" and the history lesson of "James K. Polk". Linnell's, and TMBG's emotional climax is surely "Birdhouse in Your Soul", the simultaneously goofy and touching story of a bird-shaped night light ("blue canary in the outlet by the lightswitch/who watches over you"). The audience in the Moore theatre bopped up and down with gleeful abandon, the only response to the joy with which John and John purvey their twisted pop. After "Birdhouse", Flansberg's Pixies-ish "Dig My Grave" is almost an afterthought, a sonic blast of noise punctuating an otherwise melodic sentence.
Along the way there were new tunes ("They Got" the hilarious "Older Than You've Ever Been", lots from the new album), old classics ("Twisting", a restored-to-short-form "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)", a punked-out "Why Does the Sun Shine") and even a great cover of "Stayin' Alive". They Might Be Giants' shows are like little attitude adjusters; putting silly tunes in your head and making you smile from the sheer joy of their songs. A dozen years and a back-up band haven't changed that.
XTC Vs. Adam Ant
Copyright © 1996
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