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Jeff Moehlis: They Might Be Giants Not Just for Kids

The quirky band's show at UCSB strikes a chord with the young and the young at heart

If you don’t have young children, you might have missed the welcome — though certainly not universal — trend of children’s music actually being enjoyable for adults.

My kids, wife and I are all big fans of Justin Roberts, who sings catchy power-pop songs based on common childhood experiences, such as the first day of school, getting a shot or pretending to be a super hero. Other family favorites include Laurie Berkner, “The Coffee Song” by Ralph’s World with the lyrics “M-O-M-M-Y Needs C-O-F-F-E-E,” and the songs of author Sandra Boynton sung by guest stars such as Brian Wilson and Kevin Kline.

And then there is They Might Be Giants — yes, the band whose quirky geek-rock songs were hugely popular on college campuses in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Led by John Flansburgh and John Linnell, TMBG had its biggest success with 1990s major-label debut Flood, which featured the minor hit “Birdhouse In Your Soul” (sung from the point of view of a nightlight, of all things) and a delightful cover of “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).”

In 2002, TMBG released the album No! It brilliantly adapts the band’s quirkiness to a children’s audience, although it must be pointed out that many of the songs for grown-ups also work for kids. For example, my 5-year-old daughter particularly loves “Birdhouse In Your Soul.” The album No! was followed by the more thematic children’s albums Here Come the ABC’s, the Grammy-winning Here Come the 123s and 2009’s Here Comes Science.

TMBG is on a tour that includes shows for kids and shows for adults. On Sunday afternoon at Campbell Hall at UCSB, TMBG played a show for kids, but it’s safe to say that the adults in attendance, many of whom probably listened to TMBG during their college-age years, also had a great time.

The show started with “Seven Days of the Week,” in which a “kid” joyfully declares that he never goes to work, instead practicing saxophone everyday. (The studio version has the child practicing trumpet everyday — the lyrics were presumably changed as a nod to the band’s brilliant touring saxophonist/multi-instrumentalist Ralph Carney.)

Next was a rollicking, funky version of “Clap Your Hands,” in which the audience was encouraged to participate through hand clapping, foot stomping and jumping in the air.

The fun continued with song after song of childhood wonder and educational fare, including the whimsical “Where Do They Make Balloons?”, the colors-of-the-spectrum mnemonic “Roy G. Biv,” the liar’s-fantasy “Fibber Island,” a cover of “Why Does The Sun Shine?” — which rhymes “the sun is a mass of incandescent gas” — and the more-scientifically-accurate-than-some-high-school-science-curricula “My Brother the Ape.”

A highlight was the percussive-sound-effects-enhanced “Bed Bed Bed,” especially when tissue paper confetti blasted unexpectedly into the audience, sending kids scrambling to catch some. More confetti followed later in the show.

Best of all was the interlude featuring outrageous sock puppets called the “Avatars of They,” controlled by Flansburgh and Linnel and with wide-angle visages projected onstage. The avatars bantered and made silly jokes, such as “I’ve always dreamed of being a dancer, but alas I have no legs.” They also sang “What Is A Shooting Star?” and the “public service announcement” song “In the Middle, In the Middle, In the Middle,” which warns kids not to cross the street in the middle of the block. (The latter was my older daughter’s favorite song when she was about 3 years old.)

For the grown-ups, the band revisited their classic “Particle Man” and the show-closing “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”. There were also several jokes sprinkled in for the music-geek parents in the audience. For example, in getting the crowd to count to nine in preparation for “Pirate Girls Nine,” Flansburgh urged a “Cheap Trick at Budokan” response, even mimicking Robin Zander’s introduction of “Surrender.”

Props must be given to the rest of the band, consisting of Dan Miller on guitar, Danny Weinkauf on bass, Marty Beller on drums and Ralph Carney on saxophone, who together with Flansburgh on guitar and Linnel on keyboards provided a tight, playful sound.

Yes, children’s music can be enjoyed by adults. If you don’t believe me, check out the offerings from TMBG, even if you don’t have young children.

Setlist
Seven Days of the Week (I Never Go to Work)
Clap Your Hands
Eight Hundred & Thirteen Mile Car Trip
Where Do They Make Balloons?
Why Does the Sun Shine?
Pirate Girls Nine
Bed Bed Bed
Roy G. Biv
Alphabet Lost and Found
Older
Fibber Island
Zilch
Particle Man
What Is A Shooting Star?
In the Middle, In the Middle, In the Middle
My Brother The Ape
Alphabet of Nations
Seven Doctor Worm

Encore
Meet the Elements
Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB.

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