This weekend was an outstanding one. If you are unaware, since about the age of 14 I have been a huge fan of the band They Might Be Giants while maintaining a very respectable collection of their disks and records. Back in 1999 I went with a group of friends and first saw them at the Warfield in San Francisco. It was one of the most amazing shows in that the crowd was great, we were near the front, and they played a ton of great songs. The opening band for that show was a small band called "You Were Spiraling" that played a brilliant set as well with some cool old covers and original work. It was a good time.
While I still listened to them often, I did not get another chance to see them until 2007. This show was also in SF, but this time we were at the Fillmore. The opening band for this show was called "Oppenheimer." They were a 2-person group that really did well for themselves. That show, while it rocked as well, did not recreate the same feeling for me as the first show did some years earlier. I enjoyed myself overall, but it was not the same as it was in my youth. While I still purchased merch and would not say I was disappointed, I started to question if I had grown away from this band that I loved so dearly.
Did they change or did I change? It took me awhile to realize that we both had, but that the change is not a bad thing at all.
Earlier this year TMBG sent out an email selling "Fan Club" memberships which included free t-shirts, free vinyls, and 2 free concert tickets to one of the shows on the upcoming tour. I jumped at the chance for a few reason, but mostly for the records. It is a good thing that I did jump at the chance as they only had 1000 spots open and they sold out in about 24-hours. I was one of the lucky few and my name is listed with the other fan club members in the digital booklet to their newest full release "Join Us."
I now started to see what they were going for here. Once the album came out my love for the band was rejuvinated in that they were playing smart adult rock tunes again. For the first time in years I had to take out my dictionary to find out what a song was talking about. The music was new, while still being TMBG, and the lyrics were spot-on with their quirkiness, while still maintaining dark themes hiding inside of beautiful pop melodies.
The album title, the fan club, their website, and everything was changed from the previous few years to reflect a band who was once something, trying to get back to those roots that made them great and they succeeded wonderfully.
For my free tickets I got a pair for an SF show, again at the Fillmore. This time they also booked a second show that same weekend at the venue. I picked up a pair of tickets for that show as well. Then, just a couple of days before the shows, they announced a free show at Amoeba Records in SF along with a signing. Holy crap! 3 shows in 2 days! Woot!
We booked a hotel for the weekend and we were off. First show was Saturday night. My uncle who lives in the area met us for the sold-out concert as I had an extra ticket. The opening band for this tour was the great Jonathan Coulton. I had never seen him before but was familiar with his nerdy songs, so that was fun. We stood near the back of the venue, had a good view overall, and listened. After Coulton preformed, then TMBG took the stage and right off the bat opened with a strange set list. In the past they would open shows with harder, mostly upbeat songs. This was different. They opened with an old song from their second album called "Pencil Rain" which was one of my favorites like 15 years ago. I was floored with a "Wow..."
The set followed along these these lines. Overall it was a strange set that was kind of weird and choppy and did not flow that well. That was my only complaint. The show was fun and positive in the end. I got the feeling that John Linell was really not that on-the-ball that night though. I came to find out that the show the night before was a huge disappointment with a terrible crowd, so it was understandable that the band was a little off the ball for this one.
After Pencil Rain they followed with a few flowing songs in "Can't Keep Johnny Down," "Celebration," and "Why Does the Sun Shine," but followed with more chop in "Snail Shell" and "Fingertips." They ended the main set with the rocking tune "The Mesopotamians." This led to a series of encores with just the Johns singing "How Can I sing Like A Girl," then the whole band for "Don't Let's Start," "San Francisco," "The Guitar," and ending the night with the crowd singing the softer tune "Dead," a fan favorite since it first came out 20 years ago. Like I said, my only complain was just the strange vibe that the set brought with it, but overall a great a show.
The next day was started with the in-store free show and signing at Amoeba Records in SF. My wife and I got there early, which if you know me, taking me to a record store with money and time is one of the most dangerous combinations. I had to really restrain myself from overspending, but in the end I was able to limit myself to just a few albums for purchase. We bought a copy of the newest album to get signed after the set and got a spot right up front, just a few feet from where the Johns would be standing.
On and off we talked to other people in the crowd and before the show started Flansy came out and asked us to start chanting "Boring, boring, why are we waiting!" over and over while he shot a short video on his phone to upload under the title "Amoeba Records Show Not Going Very Well..." It was fun. The Johns, along with their drummer Marty Beller, came out a bit after that and started the short, but rocking set. Flansy told an amusing anecdote about him dreaming about the prosaic aspect of being on tour, like blank crowds and tuning up.
After the 8-song set was done, which finished with the song "Pencil Rain" again, we were near the front of the line for signings. They signed my album and I told them I was glad to see them playing a good mix of older stuff and wished them a good show that night. John Linnell told me they were trying to mix it up a bit. My wife was a bit star struck with the Johns, especially when Flansy asked her for her name and wrote it on one of the ticket stubs she had them sign. Linnell said something like "Don't you need these for the show tonight?" and I replied with "Oh, they were from last night" and he smiled.
This led into that night's show. As announced beforehand, the band was going to play the entire album, cover to cover, of their breakout record from 1990 called "Flood." Knowing the length of that album coming in at around 40 minutes, I was curious as to how they would fit this into the show. Would they do it first, then pad the end, of the other way around? Would they play it in order or what? Normally, when bands play entire albums they start from the beginning and end at the end.
Well, when the show started they opened up again with a softer song in their lament of aging called "Older." Well, that answered the question that they were not starting with the "Flood" album. They followed up with another series of weird songs that I was not expecting such as "Subliminal," "XTC vs. Adam Ant," "Drink!" and "We're the Replacements," along with a few others. This time the set flowed much better though than the night before. After about 8 songs they busted into the "Flood" set but with a twist. The album would be played in reverse order. At first as was a bit disappointed, but then after I thought about it for a second and I realized that this was an amazing choice because of the strength of the first half of the album compared to the relative weakness of the latter half of the album.
After a wonderful set and the completion of the album, the band left the stage. This then provoked a couple of encores including the songs "Can't Keep Johnny Down," "Fingertips," "How Can I Sing Like A Girl," and ending with "When Will You Die." It was an overwhelming night in all.
This ended our weekend of rock shows with a band that we grew up with and still love. After getting home I was checking into stuff on the band's website to which they updated with a new tag line stating "Independent Music for Independent People." This, along with talking to them, the fan club, and set list, and the new album named "Join Us," I came to realize that the band was trying to reconnect with their core audience, the grassroots movement, and the joy of music. They wanted us to join them in finding that spark that made them great songwriters and performers in the first place.
Once I realized that, I was all-in. I was inspired to listen again to the old stuff and create a new mix of older tunes and newer ones. The band had gone full-circle and I had joined them on this journey and remembered something that I missed from years ago.
Thank you John and John of They Might Be Giants. I still love you guys and always will.