Live Music: They Might Be Giants at UCLA’s Royce Hall

By Mike Finkelstein

On Saturday night at Royce Hall, UCLA Live presented They Might Be Giants to a huge crowd of the band’s devotees.   TMBG is the natural development of the longtime bond between John Flansburgh (guitar) and John Linnell (keys, winds).  They began in the early 80’s in Brooklyn with a unique, do-it-yourself-on-a-shoestring-budget approach to writing and recording and carved out their own musical niche in the process.  Their distinguished 30-year career has included Grammys, scoring for film and television, children’s music, and the sale of truckloads of albums.   They are also pioneers in self-promotion and independent marketing.

John Flansburgh and John Linnell

TMBG let the music, the banter, and two sock puppets do the talking Saturday night.  Yes, several times they stopped the show to entertain us with the wit, wisecracks and wisdom of two sock puppets.  They covered topics ranging from soul patches and ‘70’s heavy metal to Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert while the band aped “Paranoid” by Black Sabbath.  Cool or nerdy?  It’s a fine line, indeed, but it was definitely entertaining.  There was also some sweeeet iconography on the bass drum — the baddest-ass looking pink hearse/monster truck you ever will see.

Many TMBG songs seem to work from a seemingly haphazard lyrical design. The songs throw several sets of ideas together and through juxtaposition they take on an identity.  And of course art is a give and take between the artist and the audience.   People will make what they will of the lyrics so it’s all naturally open to interpretation.   The message is delivered.

TMBG’s sound is emphatically unique.  Flansburgh’s and Linnell’s voices are both a bit sardonic and delivering the oddball sets of lyrics amps up the effect.  Yet they often hit soaring, power pop harmonies in the next stanza.  The songs were upbeat and the melodies often followed precisely the roots of each chord.   Some sounded like the type of ideas that may indeed have originated in a Brooklyn walk up, with a guitar, an accordion, and a cassette recorder.  But thirty years after the fact, the band packs a pretty nice live wallop.  That is due in large part to the rhythm section of Marty Beller and Danny Weinkauf.  Marty’s tom heavy drum sound and Danny’s percussive low end bass tone made sure that the music was delivered with enough punch.  Dan Miller provided added matrix on lead guitar and Mark Pender was a crowd favorite on trumpet.  Playing with a mute Pender took the sound to dramatic effect and one rarely hears a muted horn come through a PA more powerfully than his did.

John Flansburgh and John Linnell

The real story with TMBG, however, is the songwriting, singing and meshed dynamics between Linnell and Flansburgh. A sophisticated, off the wall sense of humor infuses all that they do.  It’s very engaging to watch and it certainly sounds like they have been collaborating for a long time.   Several songs (many, actually) stood out and several themes began to take shape: jazzy, completely off the wall, power pop, and old world folk music.

After encouraging the audience to colonize the aisles and then dividing the hall in two, they played “Battle For The Planet Of The Apes,” instructing one half to pump their fists for the “people” and the other half to pump and hoot for the “apes.”  Cool or geeky?  Some were with the program and others had to wonder if laser tag wasn’t far away.

To be sure, TMBG sang some very quirky songs such as “Shoehorn (The Kind With Teeth),” and “Marty Beller Mask.”   Of course, they also came right back with songs like the catchy, well arranged “The Mesopotamians” and “Purple Toupee” which features a ripping set of staccato chords and great pop hooks and harmonies — a magnificent tune.

But a TMBG show would be incomplete without showcasing John Linnell on the bass clarinet.  On Saturday the deep, dark-toned instrument made its mark on “Piece of Dirt,” and “Lie Still, Little Bottle,” the latter with a sublime jazzy feel and a delightfully verbose set of lyrics.

“There’s no time for metaphors cried the little pill to me

He said, ‘Life is a placebo masquerading as a simile’

Well, I knew that pill was lying

Too gregarious, too nice

But as he walked I had to sing this twice

Lie still, little bottle

Don’t twist, it ain’t twistin’ time

With every move you make you just disintegrate my

ever troubled mind.”

To ice their eclectic cake, TMBG also did a crowd-pleasing cover of the old Four Lads tune “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).”    No matter how some of the antics might be received, the amount of musical ground they covered with flair and vigor was impressive.

Jonathan Coulton, a man who left his software day job to post a song online each week, opened the show.   He and his trio had a lot of people there to see him and they delivered ‘80’s derived power pop with quirky subject material.   One of their tunes,  “Je suis Rick Springfield,” was about a guy trying, in French, to convince some girls that he is RS…which is why it’s only natural that he should be opening for TMBG.

To read more reviews by Mike Finkelstein click HERE.

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