They Might Be Giants | Barrymore Theatre | 6/23

Mon Jun 24 2024

Back in 1990, there was a brand new record out by They Might Be Giants called FLOOD. I don’t know how my friend group initially came upon this album but it was as if a genie had appeared and said ‘okay fine, 14-year-old nerds can have this one thing just for them’. Of course it wasn’t just for us; it was younger kids, it was college kids, and now that I’m approaching 48, I still feel like they made it just for me.

But why FLOOD, and not the rest of ‘em? I’ve listened to all of TMBG’s ‘80s and ‘90s albums over the years. Quite a bit. I don’t recall hearing a single song of theirs I didn’t care for. Inexplicably, though, none of their other albums connected remotely as deeply as FLOOD. I had a brief fling with 1996’s FACTORY SHOWROOM and miraculously discovered its hidden “track 0” by accident! Who hides a song before the first song?? This band is amazing! Why did this STILL not pull me into full-fledged TMBG fandom?

As usual, the answer is probably ‘because you never went and saw them live, dummy’. Sunday night was their 13th show at the Barrymore Theatre in Madison, stretching back to 1990. When I first went to the Barrymore in ’94 for Liz Phair, there was probably a flyer up for the TMBG show there a month later. Hello???? When I was a freshman at Marquette, they played a show on campus! WTF?? The truth is it never occurred to me that seeing the Johns (Flansburgh and Linnell) in the flesh could be a bucket-list item until years of my editor at MILWAUKEE RECORD, Matt Wild, raving about them every time they came to town.

The announcement of a two-night stand in Milwaukee RIGHT during Summerfest was kind of the last straw. Something ALWAYS comes up and stops me from seeing this band. (check out Matt’s review of the Milwaukee shows here: I’m buying a ticket to this tour-closer in Madison. Hopefully the first weekend of Summerfest isn’t too grueling.

I did have to bike home in the rain Saturday night BUT I felt great Sunday. I was going to go see this goofy band play their goofy songs, dammit. I hadn’t looked at any setlists but given the two-nighter format of the tour, I had to assume the whole catalog was basically on the table for this single-night engagement. For hardcore fans, of course this is the best possible scenario; similar to Weird Al’s Ridiculously Self-Indulgent, Ill-Advised Vanity Tour (, you’re liable to catch something you thought you’d never hear live. For a more casual fan like me, though, this meant probably less FLOOD than usual. I was okay with that. I already missed the FLOOD nth anniversary or whatever tour a few years ago LIKE AN IDIOT, and besides, being a Phishhead has taught me that beloved songs can hit a lot harder if you’re not necessarily expecting them.

Unbeknownst to me, They Might Be Giants put out an album in 2021 called BOOK and they opened the show with two songs from it that sounded exactly like They Might Be Giants songs. Perhaps no one’s going to write the Johns down in the annals of history’s great singers, but their quirky timbres haven’t changed a bit even though they’re both in their 60s, which keeps their distinctive sound intact more than anything else. Then came “James K. Polk”, which sadly would be the only song from FACTORY SHOWROOM they’d play—and it hardly counts because that version was a re-recording! I wonder if they ever play “Till My Head Falls Off”, that’s such a great song. Or what about “Exquisite Dead Guy”…?? Anyway, a few songs later it was “Particle Man”. I’m not sure how similar or different most of the songs they played were compared to their studio counterparts, but “Particle Man” was waaayyyyy different; recognizable, yes, but enhanced by a more dynamic arrangement and the part in the middle where they went off into another dimension for a minute or two. I was absolutely floored by this, I don’t know what else to say.

Next was “The Darlings Of Lumberland”, off one of the band’s last ten albums, none of which I’ve listened to. (Actually I think I listened to I LIKE FUN a couple times when it came out, I’m not positive though.) This was a weird and intricate piece that probably wouldn’t have been nearly as impressive without this crack band of theirs—Dan Miller on guitar and keys, Danny Weinkauf on bass and keys, and Marty Beller on drums, in addition to a three-piece horn section (Mark Pender, Stan Harrison and Dan Levine) on a lot of songs. When I think about old videos from the ‘80s of just the Johns onstage accompanied by nothing except Linnell’s accordion…this was a far cry from that.

Top-notch musicianship was no big shock; when you come across bands like this with their own peculiar cross-genre casseroles, it takes heroically versatile players to pull off the live show, especially when you’re talking about a touring repertoire of dozens if not hundreds of different songs. And given TMBG’s precision lyricism and nerdy proclivities, there was no way they’d be SLOPPY or something. I guess I thought it would be more clinical, though, whereas the attitude onstage was loose, even a little chaotic at times. Let’s say I was expecting Sparks and this was more akin to Ween.

Only Ween never reduced me to sobs like “Birdhouse In Your Soul” did on Sunday. TMBG have an element of sweetness about them that transcends the silliness, and it was bound to catch up with me. Again, it sounded way different from the album version, but I’m not going into detail; the impact of the song is in its words and melodies, and truly gifted artists know that as long as you preserve the essence of the song you can do ANYTHING with the rest of it.

There were plenty of times throughout this show where laughter got all mixed up with other emotions and “Let Me Tell You About My Operation”, another song I’d never heard before, was one of those times. And then came perhaps the most mind-boggling part of the show: they performed a song IN REVERSE. They introduced this concept a few years back and I remember reading about it but to witness it firsthand was really something. They call it “stelluB”—the inverse of “Sapphire Bullets Of Pure Love”. Linnell then challenged literally any other band to copy this idea before ending the set with “Moonbeam Rays” and “Spies”.

The second set is a bit more of a blur because I hardly knew any of the songs. Thus not as emotional but at least as impressive, beginning with the video of “stelluB” played backwards so we could tell what song it was! Other highlights included what I assume was the entire five-minute, 21-track series known as “Fingertips” off APOLLO 18, and the pair of LINCOLN tunes: “Lie Still, Little Bottle”, which featured Flansburgh pounding out the backbeat on some sort of floor pad with a long gnarled stick, and “Where Your Eyes Don’t Go” which was another of those inexplicable laughing/crying moments.

Part of what caught me up was the awareness of how deeply I could easily get into this band. The sold-out crowd was mostly diehards and you could feel the electricity of that delight; I know it from membership in a few other fandoms. Artists for whom going out night after night playing the same hits the same way would negate their existence. As revelatory as the show was for me, the resonance compounds exponentially for people who truly love the band, and that joy infects everybody else in the room to a degree. This is a band that’s been going for over 40 years, and they’re obviously still evolving. Still able to bowl over a fringe fan like me—and, I’d wager, anybody who might’ve walked in off the street.

I probably won’t go down that rabbithole, though. They Might Be Giants are so obviously my type of thing. I love them, but I’m not gonna start obsessing. Maybe they’ll be a one-and-done for me. Sometimes the one experience is so perfect there’s no reason to mess with it. Okay, PERFECT would’ve included “We Want A Rock”, which they didn’t play, but for the first encore, they did “Dead”. That was a singalong I never knew I needed so badly. It had likely been many years since I’d listened to the song but the loopy cadence of that bridge is apparently implanted inextricably in my brain. Just think of it, creating a life where you get to sing that song in front of people any time you feel like it. Incredible.

Cal Roach

Cal Roach is a word whore currently being pimped sporadically by Milwaukee Record and the Journal Sentinel, and giving it away for nothing right here at He also co-hosts the Local/Live program on 91.7 WMSE FM every Tuesday at 6 p.m. and spouts nonsense on twitter as @roachcraft.

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