Friday, April 12, 2024

Concert Review: They Might Be Giants “Flood” Culture Room

Call it a flash of psychic insight if you will, but minutes before They Might Be Giants took the stage at the Culture Room Wednesday night to play their landmark 1990 album Flood in its entirety, I thought: They should play the album backwards. And that’s exactly what they did—evidently for the first time this tour.

It was a novel choice for the band, but in hindsight an obvious one. Flood is justly lauded as representing the idiosyncratic alt-rockers in peak form, but it’s also a lopsided release. If you listen to it on vinyl, it’s clear that the album is front-loaded with hits, as was often the case during the heyday of physical media, demo tapes and record-store listening stations. Side 1 is a continuous barnburner, with one sing-along after another. Side 2 is its eccentric cousin—its ideas more fragmentary, its hooks more elusive. Just as the album format lends itself to leading with the radio singles, in a live setting it makes all the sense to perform Flood’s less iconic tunes first and build up to those ecstatic top-of-album favorites everyone’s been waiting for.

Per Ticketmaster, the concert was evidently sold out—as is tonight’s performance, also at Culture Room—though the atmosphere was looser, more convivial and more open than at previous packed-to-the-gills shows at this venue, where I could not so much as raise a hand to clap. Audiences of all ages sported funny paper hats spelling out the word THEY that were gifted at the merch table, establishing an atmosphere that wasn’t so much cult gathering as children’s birthday party, a fitting ambiance given the artists’ history of recording kids’ music.

But this was a concert for adults, finding core members John Linnell and John Flansburgh in typically jovial, loquacious and self-deprecating form. “It’s not too late to get a refund,” they joked, after performing Flood’s “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love” backwards, a reimagining that was, admittedly, only for the hardest-core fans. Comedy flowed naturally during the interstitial banter, with the Johns riffing on NFTs, lighting rigs, St. Petersburg, Alligator Alley, AM radio DJs, Burmese pythons, and even an oblique reference to our governor’s LGBTQ policies.

But of course, we had gathered for the music, which sounded tight and robust, with the core duo assisted by a three-member rhythm section and three horn players. It was a unique pleasure to have the latter, on trombone, trumpet, saxophone and even euphonium, as the horn section has usually been the most expendable line-item budget-cut since the advent of the synthesizer. Hearing these brass sounds organically lent an epic, in-your-face feel to the Flood material and beyond, and it introduced jazz idioms into the band’s aesthetic.

The extended version of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”—a huge improvement on the lackluster version from the group’s last Culture Room performance—featured soulful, searing solos from all three horn players. Trumpeter Mark Pender, in particular, led a riveting call-and-response on his instrument, then seemed to endeavor to break the Guinness World Record for the longest trumpet note, holding it for what felt like minutes, his cheeks flush with air as he wandered on and off the stage, the sound taking on the hypnotic hum of drone music. A jazz lover myself, I was so moved by all of this—not to mention the foray of “Particle Man” into a cosmic Sun Ra composition—that during the rousing “Birdhouse in Your Soul,” a couple of songs later, my eyes got a little misty.

Following Flood, the group took an intermission and came back for a set of largely deep cuts, with a few punchy nuggets from They Might Be Giants’ inspired new album Book, like the irresistible power-pop confection “Moonbeam Rays.” “Let Me Tell You About My Operation,” a live-set staple, featured Flansburgh relating the narrative into a reverb-heavy microphone, crooning like a lounge singer on “The Merv Griffin Show.” “Spy” took on an agreeably bonkers form, with Linnell at one point deploying a sample of a vocalist singing “now the night has gone” (it may have been taken from Air Supply’s “The One That You Love”) on repeat, like a groove-locked record, and eventually stepping from behind the keyboards to conduct the horn section. The biggest surprise was “The Darlings of Lumberland,” the longest and perhaps most absorbing cut from 2013’s envelope-pushing Nanobots, which had the entire room swaying with its off-kilter avant-jazz-meets-club music vibe.

I’m of two minds about the second half of the show. It was great to hear such surprising selections—not all of which I was 100-percent familiar, by the way—but the dearth of obvious fan favorites (save for “Doctor Worm”) could be felt in the energy of the room, which lacked the spark of the Flood material. The group omitted Lincoln in its entirely, and only played one tune from its auspicious self-titled debut, to say nothing of such former set-list staples as “New York City” and “Why Does the Sun Shine?” “When Will You Die” was a curious choice for the encore closer.

As a result, this wasn’t the best TMBG show I’ve attended overall, but it was unquestionably the most unique, and an argument for the continued relevance of a duo whose paradoxical spirit of analog innovation continues to this day.


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John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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