Concert Review: They Might Be Giants (Park West, Clifton Park, New York, December 6, 1996)

Nominal headliners They Might Be Giants ended up working the middle innings of Friday night’s show at Park West, with Patti Rothberg getting the start and Subduing Mara mopping up the evening to earn the save. Despite the evening’s menacing weather, the Park West was filled nigh unto bursting — which astounded me, as both Rothberg and the Giants had made recent local appearances, diffusing pent-up demand and thereby (I thought) increasing the likelihood of sofa inertia attenuating the crowd. Were all the folks there to see locals-come-home-from-abroad Subduing Mara? Nope. The crowd thinned dramatically after the Giants’ set. Was it holiday altruism that filled the space? This was a WEQX Holiday Concert for the Hungry, after all, and the concert’s attendees did indeed contribute to build one big spanking pile of canned goods. So let’s chalk it up to that — as we’d have to default to venal alcohol lust as a motivator if we don’t.

Rothberg and her four-piece backing band pumped out their usual swinging, neo-boogie-style rock workouts, all colored with throaty Fender Rhodes gurgles and Rothberg’s own Spartan lead- guitar work and wispy-to-warm vocals: imagine Liz Phair fronting Grand Funk Railroad for the general flavor. The set focused on material from Rothberg’s debut album, Between the 1 and the 9, closely mirroring the set Rothberg offered when she opened for Paul Westerberg at Saratoga Winners last summer; the songs, however, seemed a little bit more road weary than they did during the more explosive Winners set. If familiarity’s starting to breed contempt, then Rothberg and company need to get themselves into the studio quick — as it would be a shame if they find themselves wasting their ferocious chops on walk-throughs.

After a lengthy equipment turnover time, They Might Be Giants took the stage to blast through a dozen-and-a-half wobbling geek-rock gems that lasted almost as long as the between-set interlude. The Giants are now four years into their full-band phase, and seem to have successfully made the transition from loud quirky two-piece (guitarist John Flansburgh and keyboardist John Linnell) to louder quirky five-piece (the two Johns with bassist Graham Maby, drummer Brian Doherty and guitarist Eric Schermerhorn).

TMBG subject matter remains as bizarre as ever: “James K. Polk”, “XTC vs. Adam Ant”, “Exquisite Dead Guy” (performed by marionettes, no less) and “Til My Head Falls Off” were the newest weirdities from the Giants’ last album, Factory Showroom, but aged odd nuggets including “Birdhouse in Your Soul”, “Dig My Grave”, “Why Does the Sun Shine?” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” popped up to remind is that these guys have been doing the kooky thing for quite some time. Despite all that practice, John Flansburgh still possesses an extraordinarily unattractive reed of a voice that had me pining through the set for Linnell’s slightly-less-irritating, low-register speak-singing. One the other hand, one thing that has improved with time is Linnell’s keyboard playing — his spasmatic atonal carnival blaaats were inventive and entertaining. More of that next time, please.

Subduing Mara’s set was marred by a poor vocal mix through the PA, but their instrumental prowess muscled through the damnably emptying room’s sonic muck unscathed. It’s a testament to the sheer muscular punch of their songs that they could elicit emotional response even when their lyrics were subsumed — they do the anthemic slow build as well as anybody I’ve ever heard, linking two slow guitar figures, adding bass color slowly, cymbals, then kick-drum, louder, building, louder, fluctuating, louder, rumbling, roaring, climax, out. (Was it good for you too?) I’m keeping an eye out for their imminent new album on Fear of Nebraska Records to hear how it all sounds with voices.

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