They Might Be Giants + Jonathan Coulton
September 16, 2011
On the surface, it’s a normal, sold-out show on a Friday night just north of downtown Cleveland. The fans stretch around the corner from the front door; ticket holders excited for the concert they’re about to see, and those without tickets hoping to catch a break when they get to the box office. But this is not a normal show, and this is not a normal audience. These are the geeks. The nerds. Die hard rock fans of a different shade of crazy, waiting for their musical heroes to serenade them with catchy pop songs tinged with dark humor and insightful counter-culture references.
Jonathan Coulton, playing with a tightly-knit three piece band, opened with a couple fan favorites. Show openers are so often simply speed bumps to the main attraction, but not in this case. Coulton rocked with precision and efficiency on old classics like “Still Alive” and new cuts like “Sticking It To Myself”. His songs were treated to a little faster tempo and stripped down from any musical excesses like the prevalent keyboards from his new album Artificial Heart. The same quirk and pop sensibility of Coulton’s songwriting were certainly on display in his live performance.
They Might Be Giants wasted no time getting goofy, as Flansburgh took the mic with sinister charm and welcomed everyone in a silly voice before opening with the infamous “Birdhouse In Your Soul”. Many of TMBG’s usual show staples made appearances, such as Flansburgh’s absurdist narrations, Linnell picking up his accordion and saxophone, impressive solos from other members of the band like the crowd-lauded acoustic guitar opener by Dan Miller on “Istanbul”, and even a brief puppet show from the Avatars to sing both corresponding parts of “Spoiler Alert”.
After splitting the room up into people and apes, the band played a brief improvisational instrumental built around the crowd’s rhythmic chanting, and following an audience-led double-speed version of “The Famous Polka” came Linnell’s timid admission that their other shows hadn’t gone so smoothly. His confession was met by laughter, as if no one in the crowd would have believed it. This was clearly a band, even twenty-five years since their first proper LP release, still at the top of their game.
Despite their sometimes-dark lyrics and melancholy overtones, They Might Be Giants shows are a colossal amount of fun. The same way they balance genuinely artistic songwriting with catchy pop tunes, they manage to juxtapose outstanding musicianship and presentation with a lot of humor and entertainment. Music with any hint of novelty doesn’t usually get the respect it deserves amongst critics, but between Jonathan Coulton and They Might Be Giants, it has some mighty fine representatives.