I first started getting into They Might Be Giants in 1999. I remember watching the then-new video for Doctor Worm with Steve when I went to Toronto for the first time. If anything, it’s weird that it took me that long to become a fan; they’ve been making music together since 1982 and their particular brand of weirdo oddball alt-rock is right up my alley. It wasn’t long after that until they climbed to the top of the shortlist of bands I wanted to see in concert that I’d never seen before. As I cleared out the list over time, TMBG eventually secured the undisputed top spot.
I did have a ticket to see them in Minneapolis about five years ago, but that’s a really long drive. I wound up opting against the trip when work got busy and I realized that to pull it off, I’d have to leave Saturday morning, drive 13 hours, go straight to the show, sleep, and turn around and come home the next day. I’m capable of some incredibly stupid things, but even I have my limits.
Earlier this year, on their mailing list, TMBG began teasing a real Canadian tour, giving me high hopes that it would be more than just the usual combo of Vancouver/Toronto/somewhere else maybe. I assumed Calgary would be my best option to see them, so I held that in mind for my fall trip. When they finally released the dates, I was delighted to see Saskatoon made the cut. Even better, it was at the Broadway Theatre and not the loud hot place with terrible sound and terrible people, or the bar that sometimes has tasty foods but shows don’t start until after midnight.
Needless to say, this was a pretty highly anticipated show for me. However, as the day grew near, I started thinking about it, and I wasn’t sure if my TMBG fandom had kept up with this “most wanted concert” idea. Some of it is just volume – they have 20 albums out and release a song a week onto their Dial-a-Song service. It’s a lot to keep up with. And some of their music is different for different’s sake, which means that while I really dig some of it, there are other songs that just don’t click with me. I was still really excited for the show, but wasn’t sure they’d live up to years and years of my own hype.
I also wasn’t sure how much Mika would be looking forward to show, especially since it fell on our seventh wedding anniversary. On the one hand, it would ensure that we actually did something for our anniversary, or indeed, remembered it at all. However, I don’t know if a big ol’ nerd-rock show in another city was what she had in mind. But as fate would have it, my mom won a silent auction this summer for one night in a suite at the Sheraton and a giftcard to the fancy steakhouse therein, and gave it to us as an early anniversary gift. What better day to use it than our actual anniversary?
The drive was uneventful and podcast-laden and I said that last week. But checking into the hotel? Also uneventful. We changed into what I’ll say were nice clothes – Mika looked nice, I looked business-casual at best – and made our way down to the restaurant. I may still have been the best-dressed man there, which is not boasting, merely a reflection of societal standards plummeting, a trend that I unabashedly support. Dinner was great; I steaked it up and ate way too much even before dessert. This did not stop me from actually ordering dessert and I shoveled in beignets until it hurt. I had to leave one behind and I still regret that. Mika had some fish thing – I don’t know, she said she liked it, whatever, it was fish, I’m not responsible for her choices – and a chocolate truffle bar that was the size of a small brick and nearly as dense. It bent light towards itself with its gravitational pull. This was a lot of chocolate. All the chocolate. There is none left for anyone. I tried a bit and it was incredible.
After changing back into normal slob clothes, we drove to the Broadway Theatre. Could have walked it – would have done well to walk it – but it was chilly out and the meat inside me was repositioning itself with every step.
I bought tickets online right when they went on sale, ultimately settling for two seats in the centre about four rows back. Or at least that’s what I thought; I might have gotten myself confused in my attempts to nab the best seats I could. Anyway, the seats we actually got put us in the second row, but far off to the left. I thought we were on the aisle, but no, this was the farthest left possible, past the aisle, right up against the wall, all squished in and at an awkward angle. Not ideal. Then the band came out and immediately told everyone to stand, so we did, and told everyone to come up to the front, so we did that too. We wound up standing in the aisle, maybe six feet back from the stage, right in line with John Flansburgh. Much better!
What happened next was a nearly three-hour show played for some of the happiest nerds you’ve ever seen. I had kind of expected them to focus on new songs – and there were plenty, including Dial-a-Song songs that were only a month old – but the classics and cult favourites were out in full force. I don’t know if that’s a regular occurrence or if the set was chosen knowing this was going to be the first time most of the crowd had seen the band, but either way, it was welcome.
They’re switching up their setlists every night and the internet is only being somewhat helpful, so some of this might be out of order. The first song I recognized was Your Racist Friend and the first one I got really excited for was Doctor Worm. “This next one is called ‘Vogelhaus in deiner seele’ in German,” said John Linnell. Or something like that, I can’t speak German but I can use Google Translate. More importantly, I know “haus” and Birdhouse in your Soul is my favourite TMBG song and with that, I would have been fine with anything. But we didn’t just get just anything, they played Fingertips and The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight) and Hey, Mr. DJ, I Thought You Said We Had a Deal and How Can I Sing Like a Girl and I Like Fun and The Mesopotamians. Someone at some point has sent you the song Older on your birthday; they played that. Don’t know any TMBG but you enjoyed Tiny Toons? You’d think they’d be sick of Particle Man and Istanbul (Not Constantinople) but they played those too.
Musically, the band was killer. John F. stuck to guitar while John L. alternated between keyboards (including with a little bleep bloop blorp pad that he called a “chaos pad” for wacky effects) and accordion. The two Johns were joined by their regular backing band of Marty Beller on drums, Danny Weinkauf on bass, and Dan Miller on guitar – all fantastic musicians. Trumpet player Curt Ramm doesn’t always tour with them, but he was on this tour and every email leading up to the show mentioned his presence. He was given plenty of opportunities to shine and was a definite highlight – he also plays in Bruce Springsteen’s touring band and yeah he’s real real good. As I suppose one should expect.
The band also brought tons of energy to the show, moving around the stage, switching up instruments, letting everyone get some time in the spotlight, and changing up arrangements. More than most bands, it felt like they were trying to play to everyone there and make sure everyone got into the show. At one point, John F. handed a pick to a fan and then held out his guitar to let the guy strum away.
I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that the band was so good – in a shocker, professional musicians discovered to be good at music – but TMBG plays a lot of wacky stuff and some songs would fall into the novelty song category. I suppose Weird Al also works really hard and has a super talented band too and maybe people (by which I mean me) should quit automatically associating “funny” with “easy.”
Speaking of funny, at the end of the intermission, they dimmed the lights and played a music video to get everyone’s attention for the second set. Not a TMBG video, exactly – the video for Walk This Way by Run-DMC and Aerosmith. One of the first songs I remember really getting into as a kid, and it’s still great. Except they didn’t play that song – it was a whole new song perfectly synced to the video. Google tells me it was a demo for the song Last Wave off their most recent album, I Like Fun. Apparently it’s been on the internet all year and I just missed it.
There was another funny moment when the show came to a screeching halt due to the presence of a maple bug on the keyboards. Maple bugs are harmless but I guess you don’t know that if you don’t have them where you’re from. It was shuffled onto the chaos pad, where a little camera allowed the bug to be projected onto the big screen behind the band. Everyone cheered for the maple bug and it’s certainly the first time that’s ever happened. It was at this point They Might Be Giants discovered that maple bugs have the power of flight. They were dismayed to lose their new friend, but someone in the crowd correctly observed “there’s more of them.” It eventually came back and landed on John F’s shirt where it may still be to this day, but probably isn’t.
For the encore, we got a drawn-out version of Why Does the Sun Shine? which was another favourite that was great to hear live. After a few more songs, they left – and then came back for a second encore, starting with a cover of the Cub song, New York City. I was familiar with they They Might Be Giants version and it was such a good fit for them that I had no idea it was a cover, while Mika knew the Cub song and didn’t know TMBG had covered it. Anyway, I was singing along and John F. saw me and shot me a smile back in a neat little moment. Finally, they played my favourite of their new Dial-a-Song songs, The Communists Have the Music, which I wasn’t expecting and was a great note to end on.
This was the kind of show where I could have gone in blind and left a fan. But even having waited so long for the experience, it went way beyond what I was hoping for – just a super fun, high-energy show. Tons of the songs I wanted to hear (though it speaks to their ridiculous output that I could list many more that I would’ve liked), great band, great crowd, great venue. It better not take 20 years until I get to see them for the second time.