Despite the fact that They Might Be Giants has been putting out albums since I was in diapers, the band never really made it onto my radar—besides a few inescapable and thoroughly enjoyable songs—until last year, and I’d gone my whole life without seeing them live.
But after Friday night’s multi-encore performance at the Stone Pony, I totally get why the band has so many rabid fans. If the shows are all like that, I might become as avid a TMBG connoisseur as my fellow concertgoer and reviewer below.
The crowd at the Pony spilled out the doors opposite the stage, and it was, to say the least, varied. Pierced teenagers mingled with die-hard fans flirting with middle age (a balding, 30-something guy in front of me wore a shirt that said “Birth / School / Dork Rock / Death”) and graying sexagenarians.
Every one of them cheered with gusto when the frontmen, John Flansburgh and John Linnell and their accompanying musicians took the stage and started things off with “I Got Kicked in the Head Backstage at the Stone Pony,” their brief, jolting homage to Asbury Park’s legendary venue.
A lot of favorites made it onto the set list, including “The Mesopotamians,” “The Alphabet of Nations” and, hilariously, a version of “The Sun” sung entirely in pirate accents and sprinkled with exclamations like “Scurvy! Barnacles! My thumb in your eye!”
After a brief set sung entirely through their knit puppet avatars and a full-on audience sing-along rendition of “Birdhouse In Your Soul,” the band ran offstage, but only briefly. They returned once, and then again, shooting off a confetti cannon—a tradition, I was made to understand—in the second encore that kept firing for a good half a minute and littered the Pony’s grimy concrete floor with piles and piles of small, bright tissue paper squares.
By the time they came back for a third encore and closed out the concert with “Particle Man,” I’d drunk the Kool-Aid. Flansburgh and Linnell clearly love their fans, and their audiences shower them with endless affection in return. A little cheesy, maybe, but I’ll sign onto that.
I'm not ashamed to admit this was my 11th TMBG show across seven states -- you can listen to any veteran band's 10 rock albums until the needle's worn down to a nub, but it takes a supernaturally awesome live show like TMBG's to create such, yes, rabid concert-going fanatics. Ninety percent of any TMBG crowd is going to know all the words to all the songs, and recognize "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" from the first notes of the six-minute improvised instrumental opening.
Highlights of the Stone Pony show for the veteran fans included the drum showcases: Marty pulverized his new transparent acrylic Ludwig Vistalites and even breathed new life into crowd favorite "James K. Polk" with a stripped-down electric set of skins. Curt Ramm (one-third of occasional TMBG accompanists The Tricerachops Horns), despite lack of much competition, proved he's still the best trumpeter in rock music with spot-on solos -- although we can probably also thank Ramm's presence for the inclusion of no one's favorite "Flood" song "Your Racist Friend."
Most of the time it was like the Johns were rehashing a kids' show and just throwing in a few swear words for our benefit -- but of course that was just fine with us. "Clap Your Hands" is always a treat, even though this time Flansburgh didn't have a balcony to yell at. The Johns' puppets, The Avatars Of They, stole the middle section of the show, acting out their (sadly cut) scenes from "Avatar" and leading the room in a rousing chorus of "What Is a Shooting Star?"
All in all, as usual I could have used a little more "John Henry" and little less "The Else," but it's always worth the price of admission to listen to the Johns banter for two hours. Takeaway moment from this show: "I've never seen a disco ball work so well at a rock concert. That's the magic of the Stone Pony: The 'Stone' is for disco. The 'Pony' is for rock. The 'The' is the psychedelic experience. Together, they make 'Stone Pony The.'"