Never ask why of quirky They Might Be Giants
It’s tempting to wonder: Why a career veer into children’s music? Why a big “adult-music’’ tour now, when even Goliath bands are struggling on the road? Why cleave your song catalog into selections that begin with A-M and N-Z, then play two shows at the Berklee Performance Center, each dedicated to one half of the alphabet? Why draw up such rules only to break them during said fantastic shows?
They Might Be Giants’ Boston stop on Saturday was the last one on the first leg of a four-part tour in support of the recently released “Join Us.’’ TMBG masterminds John Linnell and John Flansburgh have always pursued offbeat avenues for presenting their music, and the alphabet game simply seemed like something to do - and ultimately not do - before going home for a bit.
Backed by guitarist Dan Miller, drummer Marty Beller, bassist Danny Weinkauf, and trumpet player Curt Ramm, the two Johns aired more than 40 different songs with minimal overlap (how could they deny the N-Z crowd “Istanbul (No Constantinople)’’?). Quirky, multifaceted quality outshone the sheer quantity in the concerts. Guitarist Flansburgh and keyboardist, accordionist, baritone clarinetist Linnell led TMBG through churning indie rock, jazzy interludes, polkas, surf rock, and an appropriately terse shot of prog-rock (TMBG may be experimental but not necessarily self-indulgent).
The first show looked to have a few more audience members hooked on the band’s kids’ albums, and the set list seemed to acknowledge that with such lighthearted fare as “Alphabet of Nations’’ and, from the children’s catalog, “Clap Your Hands’’ and “In the Middle,’’ the latter performed by the hand puppets dubbed the Johns’ avatars.
But the show made long strides from TMBG’s family fare of the past few years with the fractured psychedelia of “Fingertips’’ and sardonic “When Will You Die’’ (major rule break in the A-M show).
Flansburgh rightly noted that the A-M show would contain more “hits’’ and to that end TMBG delivered “Ana Ng,’’ “Birdhouse in Your Soul,’’ and the initial “Istanbul’’ which featured an energizing intro from Ramm.
Partly by design, maybe partly by intent, the second show had a darker tone and sharper edge to it. After Linnell’s pretty piece of surrealism, “She’s an Angel,’’ things turned prickly with “We Live in a Dump,’’ “Withered Hope,’’ “Turn Around,’’ “Your Racist Friend,’’ and a reprise of “When Will You Die.’’
The dance-triggering “Clap Your Hands,’’ rocking “Dr. Worm,’’ the avatar puppets, and audience participation segment, “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,’’ likewise appeared in both shows.
The N-Z crowd got fan favorites “We’re the Replacements,’’ “Particle Man,’’ and “Nothing’s Gonna Change My Clothes.’’
Both shows spotlighted “Join Us,’’ with the twisted cabaret texture of “Cloisonne’’ standing out in the first show and rebellious “Old Pine Box’’ providing a second-show high point. All of the new material performed made clear that the Johns’ time in the family-music scene has not dampened their zeal for finding delight in the subversive.
Scott McLennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.