In the mid-1990s, following their hit album Flood and attendant hit singles, Massachusetts pop duo They Might Be Giants did the unexpected. Owing to “exposure-related disputes” they upped sticks from Electra Records and went it alone. This would have come as no surprise to fans of a band who have never really done things conventionally.
Fast forward 25 years. The band are in Edinburgh for the first time and John Flansburgh is railing against the “cocktail table bullshit” – the venue’s seating arrangement which is admittedly spoiling a perfectly good dancing/moshing area stage front. Though as the singer admits, tongue-in-cheek, this is partly caused by the “realisation” that cabaret seating is what their career has come to.
Although the Queen’s Hall isn’t a bad place to be after 30-odd years in, or rather out of, showbiz. Filling the old church to capacity are a fanatical crowd who, rather than being there simply to hear The Hit(s), are clearly hardcore TMBG fans.
This fact enables the band to get one monkey off their back straight away. ‘Istanbul’, which any other act would save for their first encore, is rolled out as the opener, and reworked into a comedy item to boot with the twin vocals drawn out, twisted and strangled.
They Might Be Giants, however, aren’t any other act. They famously spent part of that post-hit period producing music aimed at children, and those aforementioned dedicated supporters will know that their early career included a “dial-a-song” service (exactly what the name suggests) with its spirit carried on in their regular podcasts.
And again, those self-same fans are indulged – four songs in and they’re all out of crowd-pleasers as ‘Birdhouse In Your Soul’ is unexpectedly wheeled out.
Thirty years is a long time in music, and one of the biggest surprises (to band if not to fans) is that this is their first visit to the capital. John Linnell reckons that they did some kids’ TV here once. “That was before you were in the band,” he baits his co-founder Flansburgh. “Before YOU were in the band,” retorts his bandmate. “We weren’t called They Might Be Giants then,” points out Linnell. “We’d like to thank They Might Be Giants for letting us play here tonight…”
And while they would have easily made an Edinburgh Comedy Festival hit, it’s certainly not just about the jokes. Their remarkably versatile back catalogue flits between genres – first the’re “getting all Dixie Chicks on you” with some three-part harmonies, while ‘The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)’ mixes punk, pop and prog in three exuberant minutes. ‘Keep Johnny Down’ simply rocks out, as does a cover of ‘Paranoid’, curtailed by the just-couldn’t-get-any-stranger appearance of their “Avatars” – a kind of knitwear Morecambe and Wise, as the back screen shows a projection of a couple of sock puppets who indulge in some excellent standup.
That is just part of the non-conformist nature of what is, lest we forget, a gig… there’s surprisingly little from the new album Nanobots, just three or four tunes in total and none of the 10-second-long vignettes that form the middle section of the release. Instead, Flansburgh divides the audience into two halves – ‘Apes’ and ‘People’ – and plays them off against each other. “We’re all about dividing people,” he says before leading the crowd in a fist-pumping chant-off. Perhaps surprisingly for an Edinburgh audience, everyone joins in.
After 80 or so exhilarating minutes it seems that the performance, veering between energetic and frantic, may be done, but despite the obvious encore choices being done and dusted, the gathered throng are far from satisfied. So, a five-minute drum solo eventually leads to another old favourite, 1988’s ‘Ana Ng’ – which, as 99% of the audience could probably tell you, appeared in the Jim Carrey film Yes Man. And that’s probably as close as you get to a conventional They Might Be Giants ending.