Talent can certainly get you far in the world of music, but there are a lot of talented musicians out there. To stand out, you need an extra edge: charisma, good looks, or even just identifying an audience and sticking with them, even if it doesn’t quite catapult you to the mainstream. Many a band has cultivated solid careers off of staying loyal to their unique audiences. It’s a career path that long time contenders They Might Be Giants and relative newcomer Jonathan Coulton have both embraced, so it’s little wonder the two ended up touring together this fall. I had the chance to catch the final tour date on Thursday, November 17, in Solana Beach, CA, at the Belly Up Tavern, and, so long as you like your music a little left of center, neither party disappointed.
As the junior senator of the proceedings, Jonathan took the stage as the opening act, joined by his new backing band of Adam on bass and Christian on drums. For those familiar with JC’s past acoustic performances, seeing him with a full band really changes the stage dynamic. There’s a lot more energy in the songs, and Jonathan seemed to feed off the peppy mania of his rhythm section. After burning through set opener “Sticking It to Myself” off the new album Artificial Heart, Jonathan took some time for audience banter, which seemed both clever and natural. Favorite line of the night, in response to someone calling out a song name: “You don’t tell me where we’re going. This piece of paper on the floor tells me where we’re going.”
It was obvious that not everyone in the sold out Belly Up tavern (which is a really cool San Diego area venue, by the way) was familiar with JC, but his effort and charisma had swayed most of the crowd by the end. And those that did know him were more than supportive, especially when fan favorites “Skullcrusher Mountain” and “Still Alive” began. The latter got by far the biggest cheer of the set, and turned into an audience sing along. By the set’s final song (the manic ode to psychiatric drugs “I Feel Fantastic”), I heard more than a few concert goers whispering, “Who was that guy again?” Hopefully that interest turns out a few new Coulton fans in the process. (This wasn’t the last of the love for JC, though, as TMBG’s John Flansburgh rocked a “Visit Beautiful Skullcrusher Mountain” shirt and gave him more than a few shout outs through their set).
After a short break, the much awaited They Might Be Giants took the stage to uproarious cheers from the extremely mixed audience (seriously, I saw everyone from college age to couples in their 50s). As someone whose knowledge of TMBG begins and ends with “Istanbul”, I was a bit hesitant at whether I’d get much out of their headlining set. And after burning through “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and two other tracks I didn’t recognize in a rather workman-like fashion, I was afraid that hesitation would come true. However, once the two Johns (guitarist Flansburgh and singer/keyboardist Linnell) grabbed the microphones to engage with the audience, I began to see just how the band had earned such a following.
Partly, however, I was won over by the fact that, to celebrate their final tour date, the band had purchased an entire keg of Stella Artois, which they were offering for free (while supplies lasted) to everyone attending. I’m not kidding. The band bought the audience beer. Besides being the coolest thing I have ever seen at a concert, it instantly solidified the kind of rapport they hold with their fans. Even after over two decades of success, they haven’t adopted the unapproachable rock star persona. They just seemed like your slightly nerdy (okay, more than slightly) friends from college that want to make sure you’re having a good time.
From then on, the band mixed lively musical performances with some genuinely hilarious stand-up banter, riffing on everything from history to classic literature to Occupy Wall Street. At times the show was almost as much vaudevillian as it was a concert. A short mini-set featured the two John’s singing songs through sock puppet avatars into a mounted handheld camcorder, which displayed on a screen behind them. If it all seems a bit off, you’re right, but that didn’t matter once you saw two sock puppets lip-syncing Black Sabbath’s “Paranoid”. At another part of the evening, the band split the audience into two sides and directed them in dueling chants of “Apes! Apes! Apes!” and “Humans! Humans!” while they jammed in the background in what they called their “Three Minutes of Intolerance.” Does it make much sense? Not really, yet somehow it fit with the band, and audience absolutely adored it.
The energy and enthusiasm of both band and crowd continued to increase throughout the show, and the band seemed to hit just the right mix of concert staples and tracks off their newest album Join Us so that it didn’t feel like just a nostalgia trip or a shill to sell more records. I was a bit surprised as the band left the stage that they didn’t play their massive hit “Istanbul”, but assumed they’d saved it for the encore. I was partially correct; they broke it out for their third encore. Yes, you read that correctly. The band was called back three additional times after their set, and honestly, based on the enthusiasm of the crowd, probably could have swung another three. And despite being only a passing fan of the band before, I was chanting just as loud as everyone else by the end. Thankfully, the long awaited performance of “Istanbul” was incredible (I really wish my phone could have taken a video, but thankfully I found the clip on YouTube). The band absolutely killed it, and the video really doesn’t do justice to absolutely manic the crowd was by the end.
They Might Be Giants have yet another album out this year, and I can only assume they’ll be on the road again in support of that, hopefully with Jonathan Coulton along for round two. The two really make as much sense as any concert bill I’ve ever seen. Maybe next time they’ll even join up for a song or two. But needless to say, if you have the chance to see either of these acts live in your area, do it. We don’t usually grade concert reviews, but if we did…
Overall Grade: A