November 18th, 2011
I never knew much about They Might Be Giants. There was the name, of course, which always lead to the question of whether or not they were, but the music never caught me in years gone by, one of those bands I heard about from time to time but never heard (that I knew of) or saw. I’m always one to give a band a chance live, though, so when TMBG came to Seattle, and I was asked to be a substitute Rock World Magazine writer, I said “Sure.”
TMBG were playing in the Showbox SoDo in Seattle so I met the photographer at a pub across the street for a quiet beer before the show. It was certainly better than waiting outside in the lengthy line of TMBG fans. So we drank a few and talked of my book, the differences between what the pen and the camera capture of an evening, the fact that though we both knew little of TMBG, it was encouraging to see a line of fans all the way down the block. A queue that long made me think they might indeed be giants.
A couple beers later, the line had entered the Showbox, and so we followed and inside promptly ran into a mutual friend, a guy who plays bass in Settle band Out Like Pluto. That was encouraging, too. I like OLP, and seeing a musician I respect out at a show as an excited fan (“Man, I can’t wait to see these guys!”) of TMBG, I was beginning to get a little eager for the show. I wanted to hear the music I’d never heard, and if it was good enough, if they were indeed giants, I thought I might just work my way up front and scribble among the bodies rather than settling back by the bar with as beer and my notebook.
When TMBG finally came on, fans crowded forwarded in excitement. There was no intro. The house lights went down, the music started, the bodies moved. “It’s a Stone Cold Gas to be here at the Showbox,” one of them said after the first song. Another chimed in, “Hello, St. Louis!” to the laughter of the crowd, and then they started in on a number from their new CD, Join us. There was a keyboard intro and they sang, “down, down, down,” and I wrote, “decent tune, energetic…” as the video screen behind the band was filled with shots of someone running in the dark with a flashlight.
And that’s how it went. People all around me in back by the bar sang as they drank. Some danced. A woman and her boyfriend grooved a little too much to a song called “Judy is Your Viet Nam,” and they fell, spilled their drinks, got up laughing and still focused on the music. People clearly liked them more than a little. The thing I liked most about TMBG was that they took chances. Early on there was what I figured was a medley of some of their early songs. It was very Frank Zappa-like, and there were tempo and rhythm and key changes, and it was very cool. They were obviously talented musicians. And entertainers, for later in the set the retired from the stage as the song “Spoiler Alert” was sung by sock puppets on the video screen.
It was amusing, and the song wasn’t bad, but like most of them, it didn’t quite soar. The highlight for me was the medley. I like unexpected stuff like that, things that challenge and jar the listener, things that force one to pay attention. And they did some of that. They got points for taking chances. When TMBG stayed inside more traditional arrangements, though, they were merely good, and I stayed rooted at the bar. Songs like “Chess Piece Face” and “The Mesopotamians” weren’t bad, but they didn’t move me. People in attendance liked them, though, perhaps hearing a little something more, something that I did not or could not hear, but I had to go with my own instinct on it.
After the show, I failed in an attempt to get backstage and get a set list and a photo. The guy blocking the way was not impressed with my press credentials, “But I’m writing about the show.” He just shook his head, “Sorry, dude.” So I left, went back to the pub across the street to think about the possibility of being a giant. The beer was cheaper over there and made for a good thought enhancer. I wrote the name in my notebook. “They Might Be Giants.” The bartender saw me, “Did you just see they show over there? How was it?” Their musical career certainly has been more successful than my own, but giants they are not. I’ll give them this, though, for the medley and the musicianship, and say that they’re a little taller than average.
Photos by Jacob Lucas