They Might Be Giants: A Night of Rock, Relationships, and Reflections at The Wiltern REVIEW+PHOTOS: They Might Be Giants at the Wiltern 4/14/23
LOS ANGELES, CA- Worth the wait! A night They Might Be Giants fans in Los Angeles have been waiting for since the pandemic, when their originally scheduled 2020 tour essentially received a stay-at-home order after a global virus put the kibosh on all things fun, has finally arrived. While tickets remained valid since the previously scheduled April 29, 2022 Wiltern show, fans would have to wait for the tour to start back up again on June 8, 2022 when it resumed at The Bowery in NYC. However, Los Angeles locals had to hold on to their originally purchased tickets for the Brooklyn-born band to grace the stage at The Wiltern with what was essentially 2 sets and 2 encores – with TMBG opening for themselves on April 14, 2023.
Scheduled for an 8:00pm start, I’m in Koreatown walking toward The Wiltern, described by theater historian and founding Los Angeles Conservatory board member John Miller as a “dictionary of Art Deco style” [Source: laconservancy.org]. It’s a spacious, historic, aqua-colored, terra-cotta textured venue that opened in 1931 under the moniker of the Warner Brothers Western Theater, meant to host vaudeville and films. According to the LA Conservatory, it hosted Alexander Hamilton starring George Arliss with Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, and James Cagney in attendance.
Unfortunately, the theater closed down a year later before being resurrected as The Wiltern in the mid-thirties. In 1956, it was bought by an insurance company and allowed to fall into disrepair. Eventually, it closed its doors in 1979, was almost a victim of demolition [not the first], and was eventually saved, becoming one of modern Tinseltown’s favorite places to enjoy live music. In some ways, the recent history of the They Might Be Giants’ Flood tour echoes the saga of The Wiltern with starts, stops, and starts along the way. “Don’t, don’t, don’t let’s start / This is the worst part” comes to mind.
The weather is serene, the temperature is gentle, and the sky over Korea Town is fading into cobalt blue as the sun sinks into the skyline. I’m meeting my friend of 27 years and former film-school comrade, Kayla. She’s probably more of a fan of TMBG than I am. Dressed in all black, she hugs me with a warm embrace, we chit-chat a bit, and eventually make our way into The Wiltern. Kayla is a successful marketing producer. Tonight is a small, unplanned reunion of sorts with 3 former University of Central Florida film students as we meet up with our mutual buddy, Alicia – and, like Kayla, she’s an accomplished producer, story teller, and all around TMBG fan. Alicia shot my first film on 16mm reversal. They both helped me with my thesis. We grew up with this music and in some ways, the three of us have seen each other grow into adults; at least since our 20s.
After a round of over-priced cocktails [Sorry Wiltern, it’s true], I head to the front of the stage while Kayla and Alicia remain in the back of the venue and at my age, I’d rather be back there with them. It’s a sold-out crowd and the Wiltern is jammed with wall-to-wall bodies. At least I’m in the space between the lip of the stage and the audience barricades where I’m free to snap performance shots of the group for at least the first 3 tracks. Before the lights go down, I strike up a conversation with some long-time admirers who have traveled far to see one of their favorite live acts.
Front row audience member, James Paniagua, who had first discovered “Particle Man” and “Istanbul” in the early nineties at camp, reminisces about hearing They Might Be Giants as an adolescent. Flood “was the first CD that I got in, I wanna say 93’. I love the beat, I love the music, it really resonated.”
Sean Galvin was introduced to the quirky, odd-ball, humanities-seeded sound of TMBG by James in 1993 in Northern California. Nearly 2 decades passed when Sean finally encouraged James to travel to San Fran circa 2011 for their first TMBG show. Sean comments, “James was my They Might Be Giants hustler.” Since then, tonight’s show marks approximately number 10 to 12 for the friends and their energy hasn’t diminished, “making it a tradition.”
James’ wife Sarah explains that they live in Auburn, California and travelled to Los Angeles to meet with Sean, travelling some 6.5 hours to celebrate this music. That’s what TMBG inspires in their fans: dedication, joy, life-long friends gathering, and a celebration of nerdy alt-rock. According to Sara, “They’re like a brotherhood that goes to these concerts.”
The accumulative cheers of this brother and sisterhood blooms as the lights go down and They Might Be Giants take the stage. There’s a brief canned intro allowing band members to take their paces before diving into 2004’s “Damn Good Times”. According to this might be a wiki, the song was inspired by David Lee Roth and his song “Damn Good.” That encapsulates the weirdness and angular connections They Might Be Giants have ironically made in a lot of their music. “Yeah I know a girl who’s got a record machine / She acts like David Lee Roth when he turned 21.” I didn’t know there was any relation whatsoever, and it gives the track a bit of an unexpected correlation to another artist who exists in a different musical universe.
Aged in their early 60s, original founding members John Flansburgh and John Linnell belt out vocals as if it was still the eighties and nineties, without any detection of mid-life vocal degradation. It gives me hope that I can still keep rocking into my old age, even if I look silly doing it. And, while silliness is part of the DNA of They Might Be Giants, the band still takes performing seriously, even if they interject it with humor about current pop culture nonsense.
After a searing solo finishing up “Damn Good Times” by guitarist Dan Miller, Flansburgh takes the mic for some one-on-one with the crowd. “Thank you so much for buying your tickets in the year two thousand and twenty,” mentions Flansburgh immediately followed by audience cheers with Linnell quipping, “As you know those tickets have appreciated in value since then.” Music and humor make up the routine of They Might Be Giants and it’s what listeners love the most. Their music and stage presence are joy personified.
“Since then, you can trade them in for NFTs,” Flansburgh jokes before mentioning that they are doing 2 sets, opening for themselves. “We are not getting along with the opener.” The band plans to perform not only all of Flood interspersed in tonight’s performance, but also newer music including their second song of the set “Synopsis for Latecomers.” One of the successes of They Might Be Giants is their consistent sound throughout the decades, while not seeming repetitive or boring, and “Latecomers” illustrates this perfectly.
The first set, including old and new songs with favorites “Your Racist Friend” and “Particle Man” offer very satisfying and entertaining moments that are nothing short of musical time travel. A fun highlight included performing and video recording “Sapphire Bullets of Pure Love” sonically backwards in the first set, sending it to post production backstage, and broadcasting the results on-stage during the top of the second set. “We learned the damn song backwards,” declares Flansburgh.
After performing the song “Road Movie to Berlin,” which fits into the category of last-call, swaying anthems that feel drunk before exploding in to big-brass-band finishes, Flansburgh introduces the euphonium. [My research tells me a euphonium is a low-brass instrument that gets its name from the Ancient Greek word euphōnos, meaning “sweet-voiced”. Thank you, Wikipedia.] Wielded by talented touring mate, Dan Levine, Flansburgh jokes, “banned in Tennessee and Florida, ladies and gentlemen,” followed by Linnell adding, “In Florida textbooks you cannot use the word euphonium anymore, apparently. They call them tubas. Which is bullshit.” And, what’s been going on in Florida’s body politic is bullshit. Thankfully, this is Los Angeles and most of us aren’t terrified of learning.
The evening is a kaleidoscope of TMBG music – audibly, visually, internally. “Minimum Wage” live is bigger and splashier than any recording I’ve heard of that song and I naturally hold a special place in my heart for “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” because of my namesake. They Might Be Giants blends alt-rock, surreal-experimentalism, pop, middle-eastern musical influences, brass band-country mash-ups, lyrical odes to history, and elegies to personal human emotions. They get it and so do their fans.
However, as with their music, my night took an unexpected turn when, after intermission, I re-joined Kayla and Alicia, dare I say around the time the band performed “Dead” [that may be apocryphal – my memories have blended since the show], and Alicia informed me that a mutual friend and colleague named Keith, from my days as a producer on HGTV’s House Hunters, had passed away. Well, fuck. It’s strange how news finds us in unpredictable scenarios. Keith and I, both older men, ended up talking during the pandemic over the phone. I was particularly going through a dark time, as were millions of others, and he and I spoke for hours until we both were laughing, dishing on all things music, movies, making TV, politics, and personal notes like our relationships with our fathers and ourselves. His memorial is in early May. I’ll be there.
Perhaps that’s what They Might Be Giants music is really about: relationships, life moments, reflecting on those moments with humor, poetry, and even whimsy. Keith was whimsical in his ways, he was a fan of history, he enjoyed smoking a joint in that moment, over the phone with me, and I’m pretty sure he was a They Might Be Giants fan. Although we didn’t discuss the band, Keith had that sort of personality that appreciated the odd, the off-beat, and the geeky. I’d bet he had gratitude for They Might Be Giants. Everyone in the Wiltern sure did and the band reciprocated that gratitude. Tonight was all about relationships. I just didn’t see it until now.