They Might Be Giants: colossal entertainment at Ottawa’s Bronson Centre

November 2nd, 2018 by  |  Published in Concerts

They Might Be Giants - promo

Source: They Might Be Giants

Fans of They Might Be Giants (TMBG) older than I have been waiting more than 30 years for the idiosyncratic rockers to return to Ottawa. That long wait was rewarded with a show as surprising and unconventional as the band’s career.

They might be mysterious

TMBG enjoyed ubiquitous but understated exposure thanks to their performance of theme songs (The Daily Show, Malcolm in the Middle) and a deal with Disney that resulted in three successful children’s albums in the 2000s. Millennial fans might remember the Tiny Tunes shorts featuring “Particle Man” and “Istanbul.”

More bizarrely, the band got their start in the late 80s by advertising the phone number for an answering machine that would play a prerecorded song. TMBG reincarnated this “Dial-a-Song” service in 2015 as a challenge to record a new song every week for the year. They are currently repeating the experiment for 2018.

The results are mixed, as singer and guitarist John Flansburgh himself noted. So it was nice to see the hear band acknowledge their roots by playing a song from each incarnation of “Dial-a-Song,” especially in the second encore to close out the show with “Hey, Mr. DJ, I Thought We Had a Deal.” The early tune’s theme of buying fame is delightfully ironic for a band who has done everything but to grow its fan base.

With their flare for witty and humourous lyrics and their love of experiment, casual listeners often pigeonhole TMBG as a novelty band. Attending their shows tells a different story. Last night’s concert demonstrated that TMBG is a seriously talented band with a unique approach to songwriting, and an unparalleled live act.

They might be twisting

The music itself ranged from early post-punk classics like “Don’t Let’s Start,” to swinging performances tinged with big brass influence. Notably, “Dr. Worm” and “Let Me Tell You About My Operation.” Most powerful among these was the trombone and trumpet intro to the cover of the Four Lads’ “Istanbul,” which showcased the incredible talent of Curt Ramm as he switched between the two instruments. Ramm, who has also played with Bruce Springsteen, was omnipresent, his vibrant brass featured as much as possible across both hour-long sets.

The first part of the show led with expected favourites like the international hit “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” and “the Guitar,” a quasi-cover of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight.” TMBG delivered a few surprises too. Their first set got the crowd excited for more by closing with an hilarious rendition of “Spy.” After a spacey horn and bass intro, the song was further extended with an elaborate improvisational section, with John Linnell (vocals, keyboard, accordion, contrabass clarinet) and Flansburgh taking turns conducting the rest of the band, and the crowd.

They Might be Giants have the music

The second set opened with 4 acoustic songs book-ended by the fatalistic “Older” and an inspirational sing-along of “How Can I Sing Like a Girl.” After easing back into things, TMBG got the crowd moving again, first with “Istanbul,” and then by warning of an impending attempt to create just as much discordant noise as possible. The transition into a jarring rendition of Ana Ng was seamless. Some more favourites followed, including a complete run through of “Fingertips,” a series of 21 song fragments beloved by old school fans.

The first encore featured band intros (not for the first time), with each backing band member soloing and then leaving the stage in turn. This was just one of the many moments that revealed TMBG’s penchant for subversive approaches to performance, songwriting, and showmanship. Another encore later, TMBG certainly made sure they gave Ottawa fans what they’d long been waiting for.

They might like fun

Even more entertaining than the music was the stage presence of band leaders Flansburgh and Linnell, who often took breaks for short conversation. It’s rare to see a show where the band offers anything unrehearsed, so it’s refreshing to hear frequent pauses for improvised stage banter between two musicians just having fun.

Whether encouraging the crowd to pretend to enjoy the large doses of new material, or deliberately coughing into the mike, or inviting everyone to ignore the band and fiddle with their phones, Flansburgh and Linnell always appeared to be having a good time, and wanted the crowd to as well.

Flansburgh’s self-deprecating manner aside, forcing the crowd to fall in love with songs from the recent album I Like Fun, and a whole lot more, was not so difficult after all. The insistent title says it all for a band with a deserving reputation for a great live show.

“Damn Good Times” were had by all.

Nov 2/2018

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