They Might Be Giants: Nanobots at The Marquee Theatre
By Devon Adams
There are those seminal bands that represent a snapshot of time past. Bands that define a summer, an age of youthful innocence we long for again. In the summer of 1990 I traveled with a friend’s family to Ocean City, Maryland where we traversed the boardwalk, slipping in and out of small shops. In one surf shop, the opening notes of a song started. The cashier quickly moved towards the cassette deck and cranked up the volume and one by one the dozen or so people in the store perked up. By the time the drums hit, every other person started singing loudly to an anthem of that summer – an innocent, exciting jingle riff that I have never been able to shake, and why would I? They Might Be Giants’ (TMBG) biggest hit “Birdhouse in Your Soul” burned into my psyche that June afternoon.
Started by Nebraskan friends John Linnell and John Flansburgh in 1982, They Might Be Giants have had a long career in the adult and children music industries. On tour for their 16th studio album, Nanobots, Linnell and Flansburgh stepped onto the Marquee stage Friday night with a simple accordion and guitar before slowly starting a stripped down version of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”. Flansburgh reminded me of an older Jewish doctor with his cardigan, checkered dress shirt, jeans and glasses. John Linnell, his partner in crime, was much more unassuming until he began to sing; the audience clearly recognized his voice from thirty years of hits.
The screaming crowd who were eager to hear the most popular songs from a three decade career quickly joined in singing “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” before the full band walked out on stage. Having reviewed former set lists from this tour prior to the performance, I expected this number later so I quickly realized the performance would be more impromptu. The video screen behind the band included footage of the crowd screaming, which made us feel like we were all part of the show, that we were in on the joke and enjoyed every minute of it.
In true TMBG humor, they began bantering about the pronunciation of “Tempe” by calling the city “tem-pay” or “tem-pe” while clearly enjoying themselves on stage prior to moving into “Letterbox”. Flansburgh joked that they felt “ossified” and hoped they could remember the song that they originally wrote in 1985. They played through several classics like this complex number, as well as newer songs like “Call Your Mom” from Nanobots (2013), the album clearly demonstrating a return to adult music. Flansburgh moved back and forth across the stage sometimes playing guitar stage left from Linnell’s keys or other times mock jumping from the front of Beller’s drum kit. While Linnell’s demeanor seemed to focus clearly on the music, Flansburgh is the showman of the two.
When introducing “Meet the Elements”, Flansburgh said they slept through high school so the audience didn’t have to before going into the most enjoyable chemistry lesson I’ve ever had. Later in the set, during “Doctor Worm” the band demonstrates their love for learning withlyrics like “My name is Dr. Worm. / Good morning. How are you? I’m Dr. Worm. / I’m interested in things.” Even when it was pointed out their song “Why Does the Sun Shine?” inadvertently teaches children that the sun is made up of gasses, the band wrote a “sequel” called “Why Does the Sun Really Shine?” with catchy tongue-twisting lyrics like “miasma of incandescent plasma” that clarifies that the sun is made up of plasma.
Following “Meet the Elements”, TMBG announced they were playing their song, “Tesla” about Nikola Tesla, the father of the x-ray. They explained without Google people may not know he also experimented with alternate electrical currents and tried to invent a “death-ray”.
They Might Be Giants jammed through a few other songs including “32 Footsteps” that led to an audience sing along and “Damn Good Times” with a Beller/Flansburgh high tempo jam session before the lights went down and the stage cleared. After guitarist Dan Miller played through a few raucous riffs from “Free Ride” and “Crazy Train”, the large screen upstage lit up with the Avatars of They – two sock puppets added to the show in 2009 during the Here Comes Science album. The “puppets” play through an exciting version of “He’s Loco”, as those of us near the front tried to see over the keyboard. The action was shot using handheld cameras that projected behind the band.
Continuing the onstage banter, Linnell began talking to mecha-Flansburgh who spoke in a synthesized robot voice before launching into the title track from Nanobots. Following “Nanobots”, Flansburgh grabbed a flashlight and separated the crowd in half. Stage left were the “apes” and stage right were the “people”. We all chanted and shoved our fists in the air singing through the frenetic “Battle for the Planet of the Apes”. The apes eventually lost after an avant garde, high metal rendition of the song inspired by the rebooted film series of the same name.
Following this Linnell took up the bass clarinet that had been perched near the front of the stage and announced they were going to become a Moon Hooch tribute band (referring to their opening act who played only brass and percussion instruments). They performed a new version of “Black Ops” on the bass clarinet while Flansburgh jokingly named the instrument the “ebony goose”. Next up was “Icky” that included a long musical break dead center during which the audience was told to scream as if they were thrown into the fiery pit of hell. Flansburgh played backward facing away from the stage while red lights flashed through the middle of the song.
After an hour into the show, Linnell stepped back up to the keys as the red lights dropped down. He began to introduce a song that we “may know”, as the opening notes for “Birdhouse in Your Soul” shook through the mid-sized theatre. Every single person in that venue suddenly joined in when Beller hit his drumkit. The lights flashed across the stage and flashed across us, as we slipped back to the largest hit of They Might Be Giants’ career. As the song slowly faded out, they thanked us and slipped off stage.
As with any good show, we all knew there’d be an encore (looking at the former set lists, I knew there’d be two of them.) After a few moments the Johns reemerged with Flansburgh on a different guitar (he had tuning problems during “Birdhouse”), and Linnell strapped his accordion across his chest before playing “I Hope I Get Old Before I Die” – an old electronica polka number off their first album. The band then joined them for several solos and band intros before finishing the first encore with 2011’s “When Will You Die”. While this felt full circle, TMBG still wasn’t finished with us and stepped back onto stage for a second encore after several minutes.
They jammed through “Number Three” and “Everything Right Is Wrong Again” including Flansburgh and Linnell both playing their instruments with drumsticks while Beller’s extended drum solo included audience members clapping in time until the on stage thrashing drowned us all out. As “Everything Right Is Wrong Again” came to a crashing halt, the quirky quintet thanked us for being loyal fans over the decades and reiterated that they only play music “to ruin you [the audience] for all other bands”. We laughed together in the pit knowing we were in on the joke and that this performance this night at The Marquee Theatre was the place to be.
Istanbul (Not Constantinople)
You’re on Fire
Clap Your Hands
The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)
Boat of Car
Call You Mom
Youth Culture Killed My Dog
Meet the Elements
Damn Good Times
Alienation’s for the Rich
New York City
Battle for the Planet of the Apes
Hide Away Folk Family
Birdhouse in Your Soul
I Hope That I Get Old Before I Die
1-2-3 Band Intros
When Will You Die
Everything Right Is Wrong Again