TMBG and Oppenheimer Live

15 Nov 2007

Isaac and I went to see They Might Be Giants play last night at the Michigan theater.

The opening act was an Irish duo called Oppenheimer. They were a bit odd. I liked what they were doing with Moog and Roland synths, and appreciated the fact that the drummer was the singer. But I dislike excessive use of sequencing by live acts (Thomas Dolby is the exception, I guess). It mostly seemed to me like each song consisted of one or two nice but interchangeable synth riffs alternating with an interchangeable grinding guitar part alternating with an interchangeable vocal line with lyrics I couldn’t understand, but in a mostly good way. I’d describe their mood as “chirpy,” which may not have been what they intended. They reminded me of an Irish “Big Country” more tilted towards synth than guitar.

My failure to understand even one word of Oppenheimer’s lyrics may have had something to do with the fact that our seats were in the balcony and from that vantage point the acoustics of the venue are poor — too many reflections in the high frequencies, which makes them kind of dissolve into a generalized sizzling noise, and not much midrange. Fortunately, though, from that vantage point, it was not excessively loud — my ears are mostly intact today. I’m too old to handle full-blown rock concert volumes any more. (As, I suspect, are the Johns!)

Anyway despite the deficiencies in the audio, They Might Be Giants did a really fun show. I have not heard their newest album, and so some of the songs were unfamiliar, but they also played plenty of older material, including “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” “Istanbul (Not Constantinople),” and “The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas” which they played as fast as a Dickies song. These songs they have no doubt played live hundreds of times, but they made them seem reasonably fresh. The set included some of more obscure songs as well, like “She’s an Angel,” “Spy,” “Older,” “Dr. Worm,” “Drink,” and “The Alphabet of Nations.” They even played “XTC versus Adam Ant.” I was grateful that they did not play “Fingertips.”

I should admit that while I was a big fan in the early 1990s, and owned their first few albums, I am not nearly as familiar with most of the band’s albums released since around 2000. I recently picked up the compilation “Then,” watched “Gigantic,” and have been listening to their podcats, but I’m sure there are several albums’ worth of TMBG songs I’ve just never heard. Maybe I can make up for it by saying that I owned two Mono Puff albums at one point?

They did the odd bit of stand-up comedy. Flans claims to have purchased a copy of the Bee Gees album “Cucumber Castle” on vinyl! The thing that impressed me the most was that after many years of touring the band is extremely comfortable together and comfortable interacting with the audience. Flans stood right at the very edge of the stage bashing his guitar, and during solos even held it out so that fans down in front could strum it. That’s faith in your audience! They also had the audience clap on the second beat of each measure in 4/4, that is, 1/CLAP/3/4, 1/CLAP/3/4 and Flans yelled out “OK, now keep it going! Don’t slow down, don’t speed up! And for God’s sake don’t stop!” They then proceeded to play “Particle Man” following the audience’s beat instead of vice-versa, which made us feel like we had quite the awesome responsibility!

In general, the Johns were not quite in top form for ever song, but got energized as the set went on and ended the show well. The only downside was that after two encores the show went so long, until 11 p.m., that we couldn’t get a bus home. Grace had to come and pick us up!

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