I was home alone one weekend recently, and decided I needed to get out of the house and away from work, taxes, and the like. I checked the local concert listings and saw that They Might Be Giants were in town at the TLA. Voila! Off I went to check out TMBG.
It was an interesting night. I hadn’t been to the TLA for a weekend show in quite a while, and Saturday was quite nice on the weather front, so people were out and about. As the TLA is on South Street, you have to jockey through a fair amount of the city to get to the venue. South Street remains a mixture of cool and scuzzy, with scuzzy seeming to predominate more these days, but I really like the TLA as a venue. Anyway, I left my house with seeming time to spare, only to get caught up in the most god-awful traffic in Center City. The Schuylkill expressway was a breeze, but trying to get through town and find a parking space was terrible. I finally snagged a spot, but missed the first song of the set, a huge no-no in the world of BRP.
The show was sold out, and given that I hadn’t arrived a bit before the band came on stage, I was stuck in the back. My pictures of the show basically blow as a result, but the unusual vantage point gave me the opportunity to check out the crowd. Hello! Who are these people?
Let me come back to that after I explain TMBG. The band is basically two guys, John Flansburgh and John Linnell. They’ve been playing together for many years, have 20 albums out, and play what could be called alternative rock. Or maybe nerd rock? I’ll come back to that, too. The Johns also put out children’s records, and have had amazing success with that genre, scoring three gold records in that space.
I was mildly into the band when they first came out, and own some of their earlier discs. The songs are intelligent, quirky, and sometimes even sophisticated, but the music is generally poppy and accessible. Most people give a listen and like them. One song I particularly like, Minimum Wage, features a bull whip and the only lyrics are the words “minimum wage.” Hahaha, that’s pretty funny! Check it out below. Both Johns sing, but Linnell is the primary vocalist. He has a pleasant enough voice if you favor flat nasal vocals. He also plays varied instruments, including a BRP favorite, the accordion.
The band used to perform as a duo with a drum machine, but they got over that a long time ago, and they have a pretty darn good band that accompanies them. There is a good rapport among the musicians, they are all talented and rehearsed, and the songs come out professional and well-played.
There is a bit of vaudeville to the show as there are cued up “phone conversations” and comedic interludes that were a hit with the crowd. I didn’t find it as cool as some, but it was quirky. I prefer bands that do a little banter to acknowledge that, yes, they are playing to a live audience, but too much of a good thing is, well, too much.
One cool thing these guys did in their career was come up with dial-a-song. On their first CD, there is a phone number that you can call, and the boys would have a song on the answering machine. They changed them out frequently, allowing continued calls to hear their new music. If you called from work, it gave the appearance of being on an important call, but accomplished the task of sticking it to The Man. They did this for years and years, ultimately moving to podcasts and other internet-based mediums. Now, it’s an app. Creative? You bet. Here’s a link to their website where you can check it all out:
And here's the Youtube video of one of their best songs, Don't Let's Start:
What about the show itself? Kudos that there was no opening act. The band came out and played two sets, and brought along an amazing trumpet / trombone player (one time switching back and forth to play both instruments in the same song) named Curt Ramm. They have 33 songs listed on the setlist (but some were those comedy stints) in two sets and two encores, and the audience loved it. Moreover, the songs spanned their career, which was nice for someone like me who is pretty knowledgeable of the early part, but less so of the more recent vintage. There was something for everyone. The folks at setlist.fm put the entire thing together, and here’s the link:
Apparently, the show was live-streamed, too. I didn’t hunt that down, but if you’re interested, I’m sure it exists somewhere in the cloud.
And if you do hunt it down, you must be part of the mix of people that are really interested in TMBG. I am often at punk and straight up rock shows, and while I like TMBG, I’m not a mega-fan. Those that are would be affectionately called nerds. Nothing against them at all, but who else would wear Star Wars and Scooby-Doo t-shirts to a show? Like I said, it was an interesting mix, and TMBG’s music seems to attract, like Vampire Weekend, a nerdy contingent of people. You decide whether I was in my element or out of place. One thing was for sure: no worries about being inadvertently in the mosh pit. Still, nerds or not, this next track is just a great song with a great lyric, and is every bit as apropos today as when it was released some 20+ years ago:
What’s next? I think it’s King Tuff at the First Unitarian Church in Philly. No wait, that’s not right. It’s Low Cut Connie, my Philly jag, at Union Transfer next week. Oh man, if you get the chance, go see these guys as they are just great live performers. I’m itching to get a great show in as I’ve been stuck in a rut, much like the Philly weather until a week or so ago. But now that the weather has fully shifted and it’s gorgeous outside, the music seems to have hit a better stride, too. Onward and upward! Enjoy the hell out of May, and let’s go have some FUN! See you soon.
My name is Bill, and I live in the greater Philadelphia area. I love music, and I have a lot of opinions. This site is primarily focused on music, but sometimes I get off track. I hope you enjoy.