Oh dear sweet Adelaide. Where it’s either a drought of bands skipping us all together in their touring schedule, nothing to do, or as this past Sunday evidenced, it rains, pours, tsunamis and floods us all at once. It was absolute torture deciding between Happy Mondays at HQ, Orbital and Severed Heads at RCC, George Clinton- Parliament-Funkadelic at the car race (there was some other band playing there too, can’t remember their name at the moment) or They Might Be Giants at the Riverbank Palais. I have had long and intimate musical relationships with all these bands and it was heartbreaking to miss seeing P-Funk (George Clinton retires from touring at the end of this world tour), Orbital I have never seen and Happy Mondays are one of my all time favourites. But I couldn’t miss They Might Be Giants, a band that have been a major part of my life’s soundtrack since 1986.
They have always been one of the greatest live bands you could ever wish to see. I don’t just mean because they have a great catalogue of songs to plunder, not because they always make sure there are plenty of fan favourites. Or that an average set from them is two hours long. All of those things are true but I am talking from a purely laser precision, rockin but can stop on dime, follow the lead of their front men, crack marksman like talent. You don’t see it often – James Brown’s All Stars, Prince’s Revolution or NPG and you might find the inclusion of Weird Al Yankovic’s live band a surprise, but TMBG are up with the best live bands I have ever seen.
On this tour of Australia (their seventh since 1990) on the East Coast they were trying a new format for the first time. Decades were pitted against each other over two nights 1980’s vs 2010s on one night and then 1990’s vs 2000s on the next. By all accounts it worked really well and meant they dusted off some gems from the vaults that have rarely been played in decades. Adelaide however got one night and set that spanned their history, and packed in 29 songs into about 2 hours.
I love The Palais on the Torrens. It’s a bit like a riverboat, where you enter via the gangplank and have the river under your feet. John Flansbourgh is enjoying the open space behind the stage ‘At last,’ he quips, ‘..after thirty years of having it in our rider. Get rid of the back wall completely, we always ask. They never do it. But here in Adelaide at last – no back wall!’ Knowing that any audience is full of the die-hards (John Linnel has referred to them as ‘the front row’) but also the more casual listener that may have been ‘dragged there by their boyfriend’ – both quotes from the Hi-Fi Way interview in the lead up to the tour, the set is hit heavy with plenty of gems for the front rowers.
They open with Damn Good Times the first of six from 2004’s The Spine, then smash into the angular rhythms and brittle guitar of Ana Ng from Lincoln. New York City is a Cub cover, but it pretty conclusively belongs to the Giants now. The frenetic energy is maintained with Why Does the Sun Shine?, Experimental Film and polk-tastic The Famous Polka. There is a opportunity to catch our breath briefly with the mid paced Your Racist Friend.
Throughout the Johns are in fine form taking time throughout the show to discuss how they personally designed the cityscape behind the stage with exactly detail. Birdhouse in Your Soul has the whole floating structure bobbing up and down as 500 people jump up and down. Close to favourite TMBG’s song, Birdhouse encapsulates much of what I love about them. Choppy beats, lyrics about Jason & The Argonauts and bird shaped nightlights (I have one). One of those little played gems is Hide Away Folk Family from the self titled album in ’86. Pretty sure I have never seen them do this before. Whistling In the Dark another fan fave from Flood, arguably my favourite Giants record. But it would be quite the argument.
All Time Want is from last years excellent I Like Fun CD (one of three releases in 2018). If anybody needed evidence of my earlier claim about the prowess of They Might Be Giants as a live band, you only need to see them do the remarkable Fingertips from Apollo 18. It’s 21 song fragments in around five minutes. I have always thought of it like a trailer for a Giants album we’ll never hear. I would love to hear a full version of Come on and Wreck My Car, The Day Love Came To Play or Something Grabbed A Hold of My Hand. Some of the fragments are only a few seconds long, and the style, pace and feel swiftly changes with each snippet. Being able to do that live, with no gaps or mistakes – staggeringly impressive. 1986’s Don’t Lets Start, was for many their introduction to TMBG and is utterly glorious tonight.
‘No one in the world,
Ever gets what they want,
And that is beautiful,
Frustrated and sad,
and that is beautiful’
is one of the best things ever written (IMO).
The band is incredible but special mention must be made of trumpet player Mark Pender, who everyone’s brains out with his spectacular talent. He has played with Springsteen, Little Steven, Southside Johnny, and toured with Diana Ross, Joe Cocker and David Bowie. At one stage he was off the stage and in the audience, wailing away. Fantastic stuff. Another lovely gem tonight is Spy from John Henry, not often played. Older includes the entire freezing stock still for a full minute mid song. It’s a nice bit of schtick. Other dig deep fan favourites included Pet Name, Memo To Human Resources, She’s An Angel, Number Three and Twisting.
So there was plenty for the trainspotters, but for the most part it was a hit heavy smorgasbord. The Mink Car single Man It’s So loud in Here, is my favourite song. It’s driving disco beat and lyrics about how the corner store and the airport have been renovated to look like nightclubs has everybody singing their lungs out. Istanbul (Not Constantinople) is mad and joyous and has 500 backing vocalists in the crowd. The newer material is all A-Grade Giants fare, Mrs Bluebeard, The Communists Have The Music (I like Fun and My Murdered Remains respectively) are bloody terrific. But it’s songs like Particle Man from Flood, The Guitar from Apollo 18, that the kids go mental for. They return to the stage for a group photo op and ask us o tag in the Adelaide Festival ‘We’d like to come back’ says Flansburgh.
They finish with the triumphant Dr Worm. The anthemic tale of a real worm who is pretending to be a Doctor. While staging this deception our wriggly hero enjoys playing the drums. No mean feet for a slippery tubular animal with no arms. His efforts on the drums are to his own satisfaction, but he is open to your evaluation of his drumming progress. If only he applied such level headed and open minded logic to other areas, in particular his persistence to present himself as a medical professional. An offence that could land our hero in Worm-wood Scrubs (it’s a jail). One happy side effect of this song is there is now a LOT of people here tonight (besides him) that will call him by his stage name. They WILL call him Dr Worm.
I heard Orbital were brilliant.
That Happy Mondays were unbelievable.
I’m told Parliament Funkadelic were sensational.
But for several hundred people on a stage on a river on the busiest gig day of the year, we have no regrets.
Live Review By Ian Bell
Damn Good Times (The Spine 2004)
Ana Ng (Lincoln 1988)
New York City (Factory Showroom 1996)
Why Does The Sun Shine? (Why Does The Sun Shine EP 1993)
Experimental Film (The Spine 2004)
The Famous Polka (Miscellaneous T 1991)
Your Racist Friend (Flood 1990)
Birdhouse In Your Soul (Flood 1990)
Hide Away Folk Family (They Might Be Giants 1986)
Whistling In The Dark (Flood 1990)
All Time What (I Like Fun 2018)
Fingertips (Apollo 18 1992)
Don’t Let’s Start (They Might Be Giants 1986)
Spy (John Henry 1994)
Older (Mink Car 2001)
Pet Name (Factory Showroom 1996)
I Left My Body (I Like Fun 2018)
Memo to Human Resources (The Spine 2004)
Man, It’s So Loud In Here (Mink Car 2001)
Istanbul (Not Constantinople) (Flood 1990)
Twisting (Flood 1990)
Number Three (They Might Be Giants 1986)
Mrs Bluebeard (I Like Fun 2018)
Particle Man (Flood 1990)
The Communists Have The Music (My Murdered Remains 2018)
The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight) (Apollo 18 1992)
She’s an Angel (They Might Be Giants 1986)
Dr Worm (Severe Tire Damage 1998)