They Might Be Giants

Vic Theater, Chicago, November 10th 2007
With the Oppenheimers

review by William Gillespie

My previous They Might Be Giants concert in Iowa City on the John Henry tour was a bit depressing. I had first seen them in concert on the Flood tour, when they were still a guitar and accordion  duo. But they were continuing to grow in popularity, had accumulated a real rock band, and a new generation of younger fans. That night in Iowa City, to my surprise, delight, and astonishment, but to the utterly rude ambivalence of the mostly teenaged audience, Eugene Chadborne opened (during a cover of Phil Ochs’ “Remember Me,” during the line “Remember me when the policemen come around,” Eugene spat at the crowd the interjection “to search your locker!”). They crowd went wild during They Might Be Giants, and the human centipede that formed to dance to the superficially musically catchy but lyrically guarded “No One Knows My Plan” forced me to the back of the hall. I was not in the right mood; I felt like one of John Linnell's many songs in which sad lyrics are set to happy music.

Although I could not sustain interest in most of the albums They Might Be Giants recorded after John Henry, they still produce a number of surprising gems, continue to evolve, and I was enthusiastic to see their performance. They're always accomplished without being professional, funny without being stupid, smart without being erudite: sober and fun.

My impression is that B-sides are essential to their creative flow. It is usually the side projects that seem the most inspired—bonus EP tracks, Dial-a-Song material, Venue Songs, Linnell's State Songs, and their educational music usually (but not always) marketed to children. The Else, the album they were touring in support of in 2007, came in an initial release with an entire disc of B-sides culled from the Dial-a-Song laboratories. The bonus disc did not seem any weaker than the album itself.

(The Dial-a-Song service, of course, was a phone number in Brooklyn connected to an answering machine that would play a new song every few weeks—a unique and personal sort of pre-internet viral marekting.)

The Vic Theater is classy, ornate, worn, and intimate. We had a good spot in the balcony. They Might Be Giants flattered us with many comments that suggested they preferred Chicago audiences. A smug contingent of XRT people frolicked in a VIP balcony off to the side.

The two Johns played with Marty Beller, Dan Miller, and Danny Weinkauf, and the Triceratops Horns from New York came onstage for a few fantastic numbers. There was plenty of old material to please a long-term fan, much of it rearranged (such as a strangely ambient synthesizer-driven “She's an Angel”) and a surprising cover. I think every album was represented in the mix.

Here's a band that ages slowly. In the ten years since my last They Might Be Giants concert they did not appear to have aged or gotten tired or even matured very much. John Flansburgh was witty and effusive. John Linnell came onstage with an aura of dread like an introvert at the work Xmas party, but after half an hour he warmed up and even smiled once or twice.

My needles started clicking when the Triceratops Horns came out and the band played “Mr. Me.” That's a definitive They Might Be Giants song to me, with nonsensical but morose lyrics set to chipper music punctuated by bizarre barely-musical breaks. I think I finally understood “Spy” when I saw it performed with the horn section, a dynamic range, dramatic staging, and one of the most weirdly funny musical moments I've ever witnessed: during the climax of the song, Flansburgh conducted the band in arrhythmic staccato bursts, prompting the horn section to deliver short brass explosions with his left hand, while with his right directing John Linnell to use his keyboard to produce show-stoppingly industrial, unmusical samples, such as the metallic clank of a jackhammer. The song's momentum was totally lost; I have seldom heard a groove so thoroughly dismantled.

Of all the wonderful moments, the one I least expected was the first encore when they performed the entire “Fingertips” suite. That sequence of tiny songs at the end of Apollo 13 is one of my favorite moments on any rock album but not something I'd expect to see done onstage. The performance was very faithful to the recorded version. The second encore was equally surprising; a very long classical acoustic guitar solo by the man John Flansburgh calls “possibly the greatest guitarist in They Might Be Giants,” led into “Istanbul (not Constantinople).”


The Cap'm
Damn Good Times
The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas
Take out the Trash
Alphabet Nation
Particle Man
{enter the Triceratops Horns]
Mr. Me
She's Actual Size
Bird of the Bee of the Moth
Dirt Bike
{exit the horns}
Birdhouse in Your Soul
Shadow Government
She's an Angel
I'm Impressed
Cyclops Rock
Withered Hope
Museum of Idiots
With the Dark
Dr. Worm


Fingertips Suite
Malcolm in the Middle
Maybe I Know
(popularized by Leslie Gore, written by Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich—just the two Giants performed this charming song)


A long classical acoustic guitar solo as an intro to “Istanbul (not Constantinople)”

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