They Might Be Giants brought their unique brand of goofy smarts to the Byham Theater in Pittsburgh on September 14, 2011 in support of their newly released album, Join Us and they tore the place up. Unlike some alternative rockers, this is a band who knows how to work an audience. You come for a good time, and the Giants make sure you have one. You’ve got a light show. You’ve got sock puppets. You’ve got John Flansburgh and company handing out decals to fans. But most important you’ve got the beguiling, mind-bending music that has defined the band for lo these 30 years, and it’s played with joy and flair.
Of course the set featured a good selection of songs from the new album, but they also made sure to include what seemed like every classic TMBG song any diehard fan could have wanted. They opened with their revisionist take on “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” and “The Guitar.” Scattered through the rest of the show were “Particle Man,” “The Mesopotamians,” “New York City,” and “Birdhouse in Your Soul” among others. A show stopping acoustic guitar solo by Dan Miller led into their rollicking update of that 1920’s novelty hit “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” Earlier in the show there was an equally mind-blowing drum solo—a shorter version of the drum solo you used to get when the rest of the band left the stage as the drummer played on—by Marty Beller. Along with Danny Weinkauf on bass, multi-talented John Linnell and the frenetic Flansburgh, this is a band that can rock when it wants to and then throw in a little avant garde dissonance as a change of pace. Playful doesn’t begin to describe them.
Of the eighteen songs on the new album, they made sure to play the two that have accompanying videos. The “Spoiler Alert” video, which features
singing hands, was recreated here with cutesy sock puppet avatars flashed on an offstage screen, seasoned with a bit of comic patter. “Can’t Keep Johnny Down,” the first video from the album, was the final song before the band came back for the obligatory encores. Other tunes from Join Us included “Judy is Your Viet Nam,” the cryptic “Cloissoné,” and the crowd pleasing “Celebration.” What the band gave us was a nice, audience-friendly blend of the new with the tried and true, a formula that a lot of other bands would do well to follow.
The “Johns'” stage personas remind me a little of the comic magicians Penn and Teller. Linnell, although he does manage to speak more and more as the show progresses, seems calm and distant, almost casually disinterested at times. Flansburgh jumps around the stage, flashes upstage and down, and does most of the talking. Even when Linnell throws in a comment, more often than not it seems like an off-hand remark. If this were a comedy team, Flansburgh would be the comedian, Linnell the straight man. However you describe it, their interaction is clearly one of the charms of the show.
While the Byham has never been one of my favorite venues–it is a long narrow theater that costs those in the back rows a great deal of intimacy–neither the band nor the audience seemed to be bothered by it. However, as Linnell reminisced about the days of the Electric Banana, somehow that grungy venue felt more like the right kind of venue for the Giants.
Opening for the band and for most of the shows on the tour is singer/songwriter Jonathan Coulton. No stranger to Pittsburgh, he had been profiled in the Pittsburgh City Paper prior to a January gig at the Rex Theatre. His new album, Artificial Heart, was produced by Flansburgh. Listening to Coulton’s music, it is easy to see why he would be attractive to the Giants. Unconventional doesn’t begin to describe his songs. His set included “Nemeses” and the title song from the new album. Together, Coulton and the Giants put on one great night of music.