Get geeked for They Might Be Giants

By Brian Bauman

McSweeney’s vs. They Might Be Giants

October 25-26, 2002

Athenaeum Theatre

Somewhere in Middle America, there is a 16-year-old boy. For the sake of this article, let’s call him Steve. Steve is small, bespectacled, and enrolled in every quantitative AP course his high school offers. And in his secret pantheon of heroes, between Douglas Adams and the Linux penguin, Steve holds a special place for John Flansburgh and John Linnell of They Might Be Giants.

Dave Eggers probably doesn’t have a place in the pantheon-yet. The author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and editor of the off-beat, high-concept McSweeney’s Literary Journal is well-known to 20-to-30-year-old hipsters, but hasn’t courted Steve’s demographic until recently. However, if Steve was present at Friday or Saturday night’s performances at the Athenaeum Theatre, he is probably having fantasies of a supergroup, fronted by himself (naturally), featuring Flansburgh, Linnell, and Eggers, with Rachel Trachtenburg on drums and an armless nun on the euphonium—you know, for quirkiness’s sake.

The “concert” was actually a mutant hybrid of a book reading, slideshow, rock concert, and performance art piece. This sounds like a clumsy mix, but the event found unity in its performers’ cultural literacy and, often, the desire to stretch the boundaries of their chosen media. Going into the event, I figured that the probabilities of seeing a genuine work of art, an evening of silly fun, or a masturbatory love-in for the self-consciously eccentric (also known as “geek”) were about equal. Fortunately, I was right—I saw plenty of all three.

The first act was the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players. The band consisted of Jason Trachtenburg on keyboards and vocals and his 8-year-old daughter Rachel on drums and vocals, joined by his wife Tina operating a slide projector. The concept behind the band is tricky to describe: Jason goes to garage sales and buys boxes of old slides from the ’60s and ’70s, then writes silly and subversive songs about them. While the band’s TMBG-like music was amateurish and their lyrics were far too silly to be called clever, much less witty, it was a blast to watch. The combination of slides and absurdist lyrics (“What will the corporation do?”) was hilarious, and—OK, I’ll admit it—Rachel, with her Meg White-esque drumming skills (and pigtails!), was adorable. The highlight of their set was a six-song rock opera set to a group of slides from a 1978 meeting of McDonald’s franchisees, entitled “OPNAD Contribution Study Committee Report, June 1977.” (The Trachtenburgs return to Chicago on November 2, playing the Intuit Center for Outsider Art. Why this group will be grouped together with schizophrenic freak-show acts is beyond my comprehension.)

The second act of the show, the McSweeney’s book reading, occasionally scored by They Might Be Giants, produced mixed results. In keeping with the theme of the night, the six performers were a diverse lot, ranging from McSweeney’s regulars Eggers and Arthur Bradford to comic artist Keith Knight (“The K Chronicles”) and NPR personality Ira Glass (This American Life). Knight proceeded despite an awkward format—he “read” his comics while they were projected on the slide projector. Despite this, he was generally successful due to his humane and genial yet incisive sense of humor (a trait shared in Eggers’s best work) conveyed in both his comics and his stage presence. Glass was less successful. His ramblings about the upcoming war in Iraq were sometimes funny and insightful, but were inexplicably out of touch with the artistic spirit of the evening. Also leaving much to be desired was the highly mannered performance of Eddy Joe Cotton, who read from his memoirs of life as a hobo. The only amusing aspect of his reading was his uncanny resemblance to Tom Waits. Bradford fared better. He read his short story, “Mollusk,” in a drawl akin to that of the comedian Mitch Hedberg, and was joined onstage by TMBG for a guitar-smashing climax, followed by a song about the story.

Despite the fact that he transferred hosting duties to John Hodgman (former Professional Literary Agent of McSweeney’s “fame”), Dave Eggers was clearly the night’s star. Eggers read a passage from his recently published novel You Shall Know Our Velocity, which didn’t utilize the narrative tricks for which Eggers is (in)famous, but was nevertheless powerful. A pair of old friends find themselves driving through Estonia (which, the narrator remarks, looks eerily like Wisconsin), and stumble upon an ’80s retro station on the radio (cueing TMBG to play “Up Where We Belong” and “We Built This City”), triggering nostalgia for the friends’ junior high school dances. The themes are well worn—ones that Eggers himself has covered extensively—but the piece was still well done and poignant, and helped immeasurably by the format and the aid of the band.

The final third of the show was an eight-song set by They Might Be Giants. Suffice it to say that if you’re not already a fan of TMBG, the live show is unlikely to convert you, but I was pleasantly surprised by the band’s performance, which packed far more power-pop crunch than was evident on the band’s 1998 live release Severe Tire Damage. The band’s song selection included some of its greatest hits (“Birdhouse in Your Soul,” “James K. Polk”), as well as its lesser, but still acceptable, recent material. (Thankfully, the execrable TV theme “Boss of Me” didn’t make the cut.) The highlight of the set, and perhaps the entire evening, was an “experiment” in which the band played along with a radio tuned to random Chicago stations. TMBG ripped through Sheryl Crow’s “Soak Up the Sun” and Jimmy Eat World’s “Sweetness” along with jazz and reggae tunes, before John Flansburgh landed upon Stone Temple Pilots’ “Plush.” Flansburgh ambled up to the center of the stage, and, aping Scott Weiland’s delivery, belted out “I’m dressed in lumberjack clothes/And singing like I weigh 5,000 pounds!”

The moment perfectly captured the mood of the evening—sure, many (not to say all) of the people on stage were simply celebrating their own cleverness, but after all, these were the World Champion Clever All-Stars (a title they wrestled away from long-time rivals the Ironists in 2001). The event was sometimes amateur, sometimes infuriating, and sometimes moving, but always eclectic and, as a whole, once-in-a-lifetime unique. In short, it was a hell of a geek-off.