As many would correctly presume given my disinclination for merriment and my laughably sedentary lifestyle, concert-going is not my preferred choice of entertainment. I certainly do not begrudge anyone else this indulgence; for those who wish to stand in either a intimately crowded, sweltering barroom swilling warm beer and getting jostled by strangers listening to criminally disorganized acoustics or a stadium-packed starlights-and-pony show with all the intimacy of receiving a manufacturer’s rebate check, a concert can be a fun activity even when one realizes they have paid $100 for doing something they could have done in their back yard with a case of Corona Light, a poolside radio, a tire that has just been set on fire, and someone with the necessary surgical skills to disable your eardrums for about eighteen hours.
But, sometimes, it can admittedly be fun. Live performances differ dramatically from the studio-produced albums, so many individuals are willing to pay much, much more to see a two-hour show for their favorite performers. Very few artists, alas, fit this particular threshold for myself, since as a general rule all forms of music stopped being produced approximately in 1978 or so, and most of those artists have found some way to make themselves unavailable for a performance, usually via a combination of pharmaceuticals and distilled spirits. A few have managed to escape this rule, though, and one of those particular bands is They Might Be Giants.
The last concert I had gone to also happened to be They Might Be Giants, which was approximately six thousand years ago. Back then, I was still in high school and, standing in the amphitheater, was deceptively bewildered. TMBG was a known, if not particularly famous, quantity, and there were enough people multiplying the sum total of enthusiasm in the world there to be aware that we were participating in something that was much more than a simple music concert, something that was destined to be an event greater than ourselves. We were there to witness the glory for all that is good and significant in the world—we saw, live and in person, a decidedly phoned-in performance by the individuals eventually responsible for composing the theme song to “Malcolm in the Middle.”
Though, to be fair, accusing the Johns of not giving their all for that concert is an unfair assessment. As my first concert, I deduced that the best thing for me to do would be to stand approximately two nautical miles from the stage and spend most of the time making sure we weren’t going to be assaulted by college punks who I was certain were eyeing us all up as girlfriend-impressing beat-up targets. So perhaps I was too preoccupied to be making such judgments at the time, though to be fair I had more than adequate facilities to make a judgment call, as I was able to reduce the amount of my brain that was concentrating exclusively on women to about 95%.
Fast forward a few generations later, and one of my friends presented me with an opportunity to see them again. They Might Be Giants’s popularity never waned with me, though I honestly only thought about them when they had a new album released, which seemed to come along about once every Supreme Court retirement. So when I realized that this would be a good opportunity to do something I haven’t done in quite some time, I was first in line to buy a ticket, and by “first in line” I mean “spent fourty-five seconds of my life purchasing a ticket off of the internet.”
The venue of choice was Mr. Smalls Funhouse in Pittsburgh—specifically Millvale, a small, rather ordinary former industrial town known primarily for having the highest Family-Dollar-To-Population ratio in America. Mr. Smalls, itself, is a rather notable choice for a venue, as it boasts two particularly striking features: it used to be a church, and when at full capacity has the ability to reach an interior temperature of a thousand degrees Kelvin with 100% humidity. To say that Mr. Smalls is somewhat poorly ventilated is like saying that Mountain Dew is a somewhat inadequate source of nutrition. And, gratefully, the smoking ban in Allegheny County was conveniently lifted merely seconds before all the ticket-holders passed through the now-desecrated cathedral doors, producing an atmosphere that, had any secret agents decided to construct any elaborate laser-based traps to thwart the plans of independently-labeled prank rock bands from putting on a show, they would have not been successful.
The most startling thing that occurred as the concert began was how quickly it made me feel old. Granted, most things make me feel old, such as watching television or reading US magazine, or the dawning realization that I no longer choose the line at the grocery store by the size of the checkout girl’s bust line but on how fast they can get me through so I can beat the rush at the gas station. But in this case, as I watched the fans stroll into line, I realized that They Might Be Giants’s target demographic was based primarily on fourteen year old girls and fat, lazy middle-aged guys, with an approximate ratio of everyone else to me.
But then the show started, and any apprehension of John Linnell and John Flansburg’s abilities for live performance were quickly put to rest. They blew the roof off the dump—though, in reality, I wish they really would have, since it would have injected some oxygen into the place. They rocked harder than Kansas. And they were just the same as they were years ago, Flansburg strutting about the stage with that rather awkward guitar-playing stance, and Linnell’s head rocking back and forth like one of those oiled castors you find primary in Soviet industrial films. The remaining members of the band were a rather energetic lot who I am convinced were all actually the same person. They placated the crowds with quite a few classics, gave us all a preview of their upcoming album, and did one thing that no one, including most Popes, were unable to do: get me to dance.
Hopefully, I didn’t dance much. Or at least I didn’t mean to—there were friends of friends there, friends who may someday be on my jury. And I certainly didn’t dance as much or as intently as this fellow in front of us, whose level of enthusiastic passion roughly equaled that of the Battle of Britain. And watching me dance is like watching Uncle Mike hit on the flower girl at the wedding reception: embarrassing, astonishing in his lack of self-awareness, and something everyone agrees should never have happened and no one will ever speak of again.
And it’s not like They Might Be Giants is a noted producer of dance music. Getting down with, say, “Birdhouse in Your Soul” is like eating pudding with a fork. And yet there’s something oddly electrifying about a live performance that makes you realize that this is fundamentally different that shouting out the lyrics when listening to it in the car and stifling your mouth movements at traffic lights so other drivers don’t notice you sing. And so I was moved to clap, sway, and move jerkingly about in what can only be described as “stroke-like.”
And it’s not like I was physically able to dance all that much, since by this time I had sweated out about twelve bottles of Evian and my oxygen intake had roughly been reduced to moon-landing quantities. And it didn’t help that some moron beside us decided to pull the old hold-the-lighter-up trick after a song. All I wanted to do was tackle him to the ground and shout “You’re sucking up all the precious, precious air!” Thankfully the performers, perhaps sensing my violent intentions, distracted me by playing a particularly impressive version of “James K. Polk.”
But, alas, all things good must soon come to an end, and the mighty show descended quietly to an adequately inspiring conclusion. As we filtered out of the theater, taking in acres of cool, fresh air as it came to us and watching sweaty teenagers wander deliriously to their cars, I slowly worked my way home (or, more accurately, to the grocery store—a hard-fought concert is not complete until you have to stop at the 24 hour market on the way home to get a pint of sour cream and some milk). Hopefully, by the time I see them again, there will be more songs to dance to, better oxygen-distribution systems developed, and a whole new generation of fans to make me feel even older than I do right now.