Home Sweet Second Home: They Might Be Giants at the Michigan Theater
The offbeat, thoughtful, melodic, and often hilarious music of They Might Be Giants clearly suits a town like Ann Arbor, and the band seemed to treat Wednesday’s show as a bit of a homecoming.
“We are super excited to be back at the beautiful Michigan Theater, our home away from home here in Ann Arbor,” co-leader John Flansburgh said early in the show. “I’m a little disappointed that like nine-tenths of the used bookstores have closed.” After wondering aloud about a possible Wikipedia edit and noting someone in the audience would probably make the change before the night was out, he added, “I have a sneaking suspicion we are performing for some of the highest-SAT-scoring individuals among our fan base.”
The flattery was hardly necessary, as the adoring crowd was fully engaged for every note of the nearly three-hour show. Flansburgh and co-leader John Linnell have always made a great partnership, with complementary personalities and voices that blend in a perfectly geeky harmony.
The band got off to a blazing (and appropriate) start with “Damn Good Times,” leading into a terrific solo from supporting guitarist Dan Miller. They followed up with “I Left My Body,” a haunting number from their new album, I Like Fun.
That set the pattern for the night, which saw the band mixing a few songs from I Like Fun -- which features a number of compositions with darker themes wrapped up in TMBG’s hooky, quirky pop -- with plenty of old favorites.
“Your Racist Friend,” which dates all the way back to the band’s 1990 breakthrough album Flood, feels depressingly current today. Two other classics from that album, “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” (the band’s “national anthem”), brought cheers of recognition and got the entire crowd dancing.
The extended workout on the latter song showcased the abilities of the whole band, but especially horn player Curt Ramm, who alternated between trumpet and trombone on the same song, something I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen before. Linnell (primarily guitar) and Flansburgh (synthesizer, accordion, and more) are fine instrumentalists themselves, but Miller, Ramm and the rest of their touring band -- Marty Beller on drums and Danny Weinkauf on bass -- showed that they have the chops to play with absolutely anyone.
Other old favorites brought to fresh life Wednesday included “Particle Man,” “The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight),” “Doctor Worm,” “James K. Polk,” “The Mesopotamians,” and “Let Me Tell You About My Operation.”
Songs off the new album included the apparently irony-free title track (I mean, they certainly seem as though they do like fun), the tender “This Microphone” and the chilling “Mrs. Bluebeard.” They closed the main set with an even newer song, “The Communists Have the Music,” a perfect encapsulation of their off-center approach to music.
Somehow they pulled together the energy for two full-throttle encores of two songs each, ultimately wrapping up with “New York City,” a frankly charming reworking of an old song by a Vancouver band called Cub, and the B-side of their very first single, “Hey, Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had a Deal.”
That song was released nearly 30 years ago. I don’t know if anyone at the time could have envisioned that TMBG’s twisted musical formula would have this much staying power, but the intervening years have seen their influence spread to TV (the theme song for Malcolm in the Middle) and even Broadway (a song in Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical). At Wednesday’s show, they sounded as fresh and inventive as ever.
Bob Needham is a freelance writer and the former arts & entertainment editor of The Ann Arbor News and AnnArbor.com.