Here’s something you learn the hard way about being a fan of They Might Be Giants – it’s not something you can do casually. Sure, you can know a couple of songs here and there. Oh, it’s that band that sings about the worm doctor! Oh, it’s the band that do the Malcolm in the Middle song! If you’re going to be a proper fan, though? That’s a whole lot of homework – and, thankfully, They Might Be Giants fans tend to be total nerds who love homework anyway. With over 30 years of music and over 20 albums full of it, the band have one of the most impressive back catalogues to work with. On their current run, which sees them performing two sets a night and drawing from two separate decades in what they call “some sort of generational chicken-fight,” the Brooklyn natives explore the farther reaches of their entire canon, from their earliest days to their most recent work.
There are a few things that stay the same across the band’s Sydney weekend – Saturday night at the Factory, Sunday at the Metro. The first set closer for both nights was “Spy,” a John Henry cut turned into an extended jam that descended into improvised chaos each night where the ever-reliable audience was implemented as a makeshift instrument. Both nights also saw the band turn in two very different renditions of their beloved Four Lads cover, “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” Saturday’s acoustic version was an homage to the way the band performed it as a duo back in the 80s, while Sunday’s full-band take was more faithful to their studio recording as found on 1990’s Flood. Bonus points in the latter to the inimitable Mark Pender, who steals the show with a cheek-swelling trumpet solo that sends the audience into an absolute eruption. There’s also a double shot of “Birdhouse in Your Soul” and “Doctor Worm,” which is entirely welcome – they are two of TMBG’s most beloved singles, and the band could never get away with not playing them anyway.
What’s great about each night, however, is just how greatly they differentiate. Night one is dedicated to the 80s and the 2010s, meaning we hear tracks from when the band were first making a name for themselves right up to what they’ve been busying themselves with in recent years. 2018 single “The Communists Have the Music” goes back-to-back with 80s breakthrough “Ana Ng,” while the swinging “Let Me Tell You About My Operation” from 2015 is unexpectedly paired with the busy pop-rock of “Don’t Let’s Start.” They’re huge jumps – stylistically and chronologically – and yet everything feels at home as the sets play out. The same can be said for night two, as the band explores their 90s and 2000s output. There are rousing sing-alongs for “The Guitar” and “Man, It’s So Loud in Here,” plus a run-through of all 21 songs in the suite known as “Fingertips” from the Apollo 18 album (don’t worry – their average length is 10 seconds). The crowd are also once again put to the test, as guitarist John Flansburgh uses our collective voices to form a “human theremin” in “Robot Parade” – and, against all odds, it totally works.
Truthfully, you could go on for days and days about the inclusions and exclusions that come with these sorts of sets. They’re a fan’s delight, no matter what combination of songs you end up with. It’s a celebration of everything They Might Be Giants have achieved, as well as a testament to their staying power. Consider this: There are not many other bands in their position that could book out two sizeable theatres in a city on the other side of the world to them, and then not only have people come out in droves but have them all wanting even more after two encores per night. It’s never been a better time to stand on the shoulders of giants – or, at the very least, those that might be.
Review – David James Young.