They Might Be Giants Celebrate Flood, A Few Years Late, at the Bowery Ballroom

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They Might Be Giants Celebrate <I>Flood</I>, A Few Years Late, at the Bowery Ballroom

The New York rock band They Might Be Giants has been around long enough—40 years and counting—to escape the pigeonholing of a particular scene or genre. They were a genuine alternative long before “alternative rock” was a section in mall record stores, a form of New Wave well after the wave had crested, and (despite spending the ’90s on a major label) an indie act long before Taylor Swift used it as a sarcastic pejorative. Co-founders John Linnell and John Flansburgh are peerless, in the sense that they’ve outlasted so many other bands that began around 1982, as well as the bands that came to be loosely and sometimes nonsensically associated with their brand of cleverly experimental rock music.

Still, the COVID-19 pandemic tested plenty of acts’ mettle, and seemed especially disruptive for such a prolific act, with such a beloved live show. TMBG did release a new record (and accompanying hardcover) called Book in 2021, but a tour intended to celebrate the 30th anniversary of their seminal gateway album Flood back in 2020 mostly went the way of other things scheduled for 2020. A bunch of the shows were pushed back later in the year, then into 2021, then into 2022—and then Flansburgh was injured in a car crash, kicking a bunch dates into 2023.

By the time They Might Be Giants took the stage at the Bowery Ballroom this past weekend, Flood was 33 years old, and the shows could just have readily celebrated the 30th birthday of Apollo 18, their 1992 follow-up that’s at least as good; or the 20th birthday of the less-heralded but astonishingly eclectic 2001 release Mink Car; wait another year, and the underrated pair of John Henry and The Spine will be turning 30 and 20, respectively. When you cross the 20-album threshold, anniversaries are bound to turn up just about everywhere.

But these shows were announced back in 2019 as Flood celebrations, and at the outset of their Friday show, first in a weekend-long, three-night stand, Flansburgh almost immediately announced that they would, indeed, play all of the Flood songs as promised—and also, in his perfect frontman deadpan, that all other promises related to the show would be broken. (He was probably joking, but could have been referring to the fact that some of these shows were once billed as featuring songs from Flood and Mink Car, the latter of which was semi-recently rereleased on vinyl. Ultimately only two songs, the single “Man, It’s So Loud In Here” and the oddity “Wicked Little Critta,” made it into the Friday show; the Saturday show acquiesced with half a dozen Mink Car songs.)

They Might Be Giants have been periodically doing Flood-themed shows for decades at this point, which has given them time to find variously novel ways of approaching the task: playing the tracklist in reverse, mixing and matching album sides, and shuffling all of the songs across the two-set format they’ve been using for most of their shows since 2015. That last one was more or less the approach this weekend—though the Sunday show, unseen by me, offered one pure Flood-in-order set, followed by an eclectic Flood-free one.

Combined with new arrangements of many Flood songs, which were not necessarily conceived with a full backing band in mind, the weekend started to feel like an experiment in restless self-reflexivity: How many different ways could the band play their most popular record without either boring themselves, or alienating the audience that came to hear their millionth run-through of “Birdhouse in Your Soul”? Their self-challenging yet well-planned approach was encapsulated by a song that appeared twice at all three shows: Each night, the band played the Flood deep cut “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love” backwards in the first set, recorded it, and then played back the video backward to kick off the second set, creating a reverse-engineered version of the song that sounded pretty damn close to the original. On Friday, Linnell wryly noted that on nights when it doesn’t go so well, the band is filled with shame as they return to the stage—but that in this instance, they could hold their heads high.

Playing a song completely differently while also recreating its original sound is a complicated trick, which the band performed in more subtle ways throughout the Friday and Saturday shows. Sometimes it was ornately orchestrated, like the multiple horn solos added on to the beginning and end of their signature cover “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).” Sometimes it was an impromptu switch-up, as when Linnell’s keyboard quit working as the band prepped their other signature cover “New York City” for their second Friday encore, and longtime bassist Danny Weinkauf sweetly gestured for him to do exactly what certain hardcore fans would be dying to see: try playing it on the accordion instead. Linnell obliged, and hearts melted. Even new-ish tracks like “Synopsis for Latecomers,” “I Can’t Remember the Dream” and “Moonbeam Rays” sounded amped up from their album versions.

Analyzing the content and flow of They Might be Giants setlists (as well as the quality of the between-song banter, though that’s almost always high) is the stuff of nerdy fans, a group to which I absolutely, unavoidably belong; this weekend’s Friday and Saturday Bowery shows were my 59th and 60th time seeing them. (In the wilds of the TMBW website or the fandom’s Facebook group, this is likely known as a moderate amount of times.) I’ve been going to see Linnell and Flansburgh play rock ’’’ roll with a sly smile for 27 years. Less time than Flood has existed, but more than enough time to lose all perspective on how these sets might play to more casual fans; do casual fans of this band even exist, or do they get scared off by the evangelical fervor with which their hardcore-fan friends treat this band? Regardless, few people holding TMBG tickets for nearly three years are likely to be indulging a mild curiosity about a band they know from the Tiny Toons videos for “Istanbul” and “Particle Man.”

With that in mind, is it still important to pay tribute to Flood, as time continues to move forward beyond the round numbers of anniversaries, and so many songs from newer releases like Book have yet to be played live? They Might Be Giants have always been adept at respecting their legacy (breaking out tunes like the first-album novelty “Number Three” or profoundly strange “Wicked Little Critta”) without becoming a legacy act, perhaps because they make rock music uncommonly and wryly aware of death’s looming indignities. Maybe this is why playing Flood in multiple orders, interspersed with varying classics from throughout their career, didn’t feel much like a nostalgia exercise. Instead, those 19 songs were refracted through a pandemic-bent time warp: Here is the rock band They Might Be Giants playing Flood, growing older, celebrating 30 years at 33, making me feel youthful starry admiration and a more-than-faint pain in my lower back, playing Flood again but different, playing songs backwards, always moving forward anyway.

They Might Be Giants will be playing all or most of Flood, and sometimes six songs from Mink Car, out on tour from now through the end of May.

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, although the answer to the second thing is pretty often They Might Be Giants.