Monday, February 6, 2012

Jonathan Coulton and They Might Be Giants 2-4-12

In November of 2001, my brother asked me if I'd like to go see They Might Be Giants play at Tipitina's with him.  "I really, really think you'll like them.  They put on a great show."  I had been going to a lot of concerts around that time, mostly Tool and Incubus, and welcomed the chance to check out someone new.  Concerts were basically my happy place at that point.  But I only knew about three They Might Be Giants songs at that time.  "Istanbul" and "Particle Man" thanks to Tiny Toons, and I had heard "Birdhouse in Your Soul" somewhere too.   In the past, being at a show and not recognizing the songs usually created a disconnect for me.  Singing along at the top of your lungs was a large part of the appeal, after all.

Not long into the show, I began to realize I had nothing to worry about.  Their energy and charisma were infectious, and the songs catchy enough that not knowing them ahead of time didn't truly matter.  It was incredible, and hands down the best show I had been to up to that point.  In 2004, I went to see them again, this time bringing along Jak, who got to see them for the first time.  "That was amazing!  I loved it!  I want more!  I want to go back to Giant Land!!"  We saw them again in 2008, and a fill in drummer prevented them from being as awesome as they had been at previous shows, but it was still enjoyable.So when they announced their latest round of tour dates, I knew I would be there.  The fact that they were playing Tipitina's again made it all the more fun, a kind of 11 year anniversary for me while they are celebrating their 30 years together as a band.

First up though, I want to talk about their opener, Jonathan Coulton.  He's an interesting phenomenon, an artist who is primarily known for writing the ending song to the video game Portal, but also has a pretty strong following on the internet.  His method pretty much goes like this:  Record a song, put it out there for free download, get people excited about it, make enough of them to eventually sell in album form, profit.  Musically he writes standard pop rock, but lyrically he tends to have a nerd or geek focus, writing songs about IT guys, evil masterminds, and zombies.  While I'm personally so sick of zombies and Portal references that I kind of want to hate him just because, I'm more than willing to admit that for what he does, he's good at it.  If you're familiar with him, he did play "Code Monkey," "Still Alive," and "Re: Your Brains."

However, you'll notice no where in that model does it mention performing live.  This is not to say that he never tours.  According to his own wiki he's been playing fairly heavily since 2006.  However with a style that is heavily dependent on his lyrical content, he's highly limited in his ability to actually perform.  His band was him, a bassist and a drummer, and it ended up being a very boring to look at show.  His banter between songs was also incredibly minimal.  Perhaps my expectations are high, but I'm of the opinion that when I go to see a live show, I want more than just hearing the songs.  I want to see things happen too.  It certainly doesn't help knowing the reputation of the band that was coming on after him.

In the past, They Might Be Giants have pulled out a glockenspiel in order for all of two notes to be played on it.  They've shot cannons of confetti out into their audience.  They've turned on the radio, turned the dial, and played along with whatever they've found there.  John Flansburgh shouts and hops up and down, revving up the crowd.  John Linell stands at his keyboard and plays it like a mad scientist fiddling with his instruments... except for when he steps away to play the accordion, bass clarinet, or other nonstandard rock instrument.  This time around, they led the audience in a People vs Apes war, had a ginormous projection screen behind them, and occasionally stepped off stage to let their avatars speak.  Their avatars appear in the form of sock puppets, and are apparently quite fond of Ozzy Osbourne.

The  biggest problem with the show was that I couldn't really understand what the guys were saying most of the time.  Of course this isn't their fault.  I'm not sure if it was because I was in the upstairs part of the venue, or if I can blame the same sound guy who caused a horrible amount of feedback during Coulton's set.  I was able to understand Coulton just fine, but of course he has a smaller band.  With TMBG I was continually pulling out one of my earplugs and straining my ears in the direction of the stage.  Given that a lot of the fun of the show are the jokes between the members and also the stuff they tell the crowd, it made it a little harder to get into it.  That aforementioned People vs Ape war?  I didn't really understand what was going on while we did it because I could barely hear anything. It was apparently their song "Battle for the Planet of the Apes."

The other problem was a little strange.  If you've gone to the show of a band who has been around a long time, you've experienced what happens when they play their newer material.  Much fewer people in the audience seem to care.  But what was really strange to me was that it didn't seem like the band cared all that much either.  They started with newer stuff, and I was feeling a little let down, not because of the songs but because they just seemed to lack their normal energy.  Then they kicked into "Istanbul" and the energy was there.  You'd think if anything they'd be bored of playing the older songs, but it was pretty clear they still love their older stuff.  It continued that way for the rest of the night, with a mix of the old and new.  I think they did a pretty good job of touching on the various parts of their career, and they're still doing the entirety of "Fingertips," which is pretty awesome.  I guess it's possible that they just haven't gotten into the groove of performing some of those newer songs yet.

"Fingertips," for those of you unaware, is a collection of 22 songs that range from 5 seconds to 1 minute in length.  The idea was that when you put their album Apollo 18 on random, those little songs would pop up in between the normal ones.  But since people have a tendency to listen to an album in order, a lot of fans knew it as one total song, and the guys decided it would be fun to play it live.  It's unique and quirky and shows the kind of versatility they have as a band.

Other major songs they played were "Birdhouse in Your Soul," "Particle Man," "Doctor Worm," and "Ana Ng."  I was also excited to hear "Damn Good Times," "How Can I Sing Like A Girl," "The Guitar," and "James K. Polk."  You can see the whole setlist over on This Might Be A Wiki if you're curious.

Overall, I can still recommend and perhaps even beg that you go see them live if you get the chance.   They always play smaller venues, so attending isn't going to break your bank.  I've even heard of them playing some free shows here and there!  And if you're sadly in an area where touring bands don't often go, you can always check out Venue Songs or their rockumentary Gigantic to get a feel for what they do. 

As for me, I'm going to try to wait patiently until I get to make my next visit to Giant Land.

1 comment:

  1. If I had known I coulda seen them when they came through Tulsa. Alas.


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