In 1988, my buddy Eric and I got to see They Might Be Giants (TMBG) on their Lincoln tour. They played at a small 16 & Up club in Jacksonville Beach called Einstein-a-go-go. They played a fantastic set on the clubs tiny stage and John F. hung around after the show to sign stuff and chat with everyone. I still have my signed ticket stub in my home office. The club was bulldozed a few years back, and I’m sure if you listened closely you would have heard tones of a pre-goth Smiths tune seeping from the wreckage. Last night, I got to see them again and I was just as impressed as I was 24 years ago.
To be completely honest, I haven’t been the biggest fan of TMBG’s last few albums. I didn’t hate them, but they just hadn’t grabbed me the way their previous work had. I knew that they were coming to play locally but I hadn’t planned on going. Well, I changed my tune when I heard that Nerd Rocker extraordinaire Jonathan Coulton (JoCo) was booked to be their opening act! I purchased my ticket that day and Eric bought his soon after.
I met Eric, his wife and several friends at the Ponte Vedra Concert Hall. It’s a church that’s been converted into a performance space. It’s small, but it’s far bigger, cleaner, more acoustically sound and noticeably less smoke-filled than Einstein’s was. The crowd was an eclectic mix. There were folks who were at the same show in ’88, plenty of college student types and even kids in their early teens. (Note that this was not a show for one of their children’s albums.)
I had been looking forward to seeing Jonathan Coulton at DragonCon in 2011, but I wasn’t able to make it. He played a great opening set with a few songs off of his new album Artificial Heart like Sticking it to Myself, Sucker Punch and Still Alive which is a song from the popular video game series Portal. Of course, he played several of his signature tunes like Skullcrusher Mountain which is about a mad-scientist who can’t figure out why his captive “girlfriend” is so afraid of him, and RE: Your Brains, a tune about a zombie trying to work out a deal with his former co-worker. JoCo’s set was a little shorter than I would have liked, but awesome all the same.
JoCo tossed the obligatory guitar pick into the audience and I helped a teenage kid find it with the aid of my trusty iPhone flashlight. The short break was just long enough for me to grab a beer and find my way back to my group before TMBG came out.
From what I can remember of the ’88 show, it was just the two Johns on stage. They’ve now upgraded quite a bit, the Johns were accompanied by a drummer, bassist and guitar/keyboardist.
Like JoCo, their set list was a great mix of songs from their latest album Join Us and classic TMBG songs. I was really impressed with their energy, they’re as musically tight as they’ve ever been and they clearly take their craft seriously. You’ve got to love a band that successfully mixes an accordion and bass clarinet into their songs. I was ready to hear to hear Shoehorn With Teeth when I saw the clarinet, instead it was played for one of their newer tunes.
Any good concert is more than just music. The guys carried on with some great banter and general joking around between songs. They make great efforts to connect with the audience. At several points during the show the guys disappeared behind a bass drum at the back of they stage. They grabbed a pair of crudely made sock puppets and proceeded to have a hilarious but bizarre conversation. The puppets came out several more times, engaging in more conversation and even singing a few songs.
At one point the audience was divided into halves to have a battle between People (stage right) and Apes (stage left). The battle consisted of each side chanting either People or Apes when their appointed musicians played. TMBG declared it a tie but the People clearly won.
They wrapped up the show with a few encores including a loud and rocking version of Ana Ng.
For me, this concert served as a great reminder that recorded music is only half of the experience. A lot of bands can sound great on a record, but the great bands are even better live. My love for They Might Be Giants has been fully restored.
-Thanks to Eric Peterson for the pictures!