Back when the 80s were dying I loved They Might Be Giants (TMBG), and, in my first year of being an art student, I even made the rare (but short) journey to London to see them play. They could have been created for art students. But only a few years later, after I’d left college, our paths crossed again in Vancouver, and by then the excessive novelty had worn off. Their incessant perkiness, and the obsessive fans I eavesdropped on before the gig, were all faintly embarrassing. Since then I’ve rarely listened to their music, but I’ve always been pleased that they’re still around.
Couple that attitude with my last experience of book-reading-based multimedia extravaganza at the Barbican (the shambolic (in a bad way) London Orbital) and McSweeney’s’ tendency towards self-induldgence and my expectations weren’t high.
The first half was a series of readings from Arthur Bradford, Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers and Nick Hornby, all held together by the entertaining compering of John Hodgman, Former Professional Literary Agent.
Bradford was the most nervous, although he suddenly seemed more comfortable the moment he began reading from his book Dogwalker while also playing the guitar. He ended with a smiling Jeffrey Lewis-esque tune about the British/American relationship, and dropping books instead of bombs, which was a lot of fun.
Zadie Smith, after Bradford, seemed vastly more professional, with barely a pause or hesitation, but her reading seemed somehow less engaging and more clinical. Well-executed but lacking excitement. For me, her story about a girl with “bangs” (or “a fringe” to the British) suffered from being read in an English accent; it’s fine on the page, but the author’s well-spoken English tones created extra distance.
Dave Eggers read Something Might Plummet. Something Might Soar, enthusiastically acting the part of a 13 year old, followed by Nick Hornby performing a rather more sober 15 year old in Otherwise Pandemonium from McSweeney’s issue 10. Again, hearing an Englishman reading an American voice loses something, but it was a good tale nonetheless.
TMBG had provided backing music through parts of these stories, occasionally as atmosphere, occasionally (such as their renditions of The Smiths’ Well I Wonder during Eggers’ reading) as sound effect. After the interval it would be their turn to perform, and I wondered how they’d manage the transition from a reading to a gig.
But they had no trouble, kicking off with plenty of noise, exhorting everyone to get out of their seats, and shout (then mumble) in unison, before careering straight into Birdhouse in Your Soul — a first tune almost too obvious, but also the perfect choice. They churned through a clutch of (what I assume were) new songs and old favourites, with John Flansburgh bouncing around the stage, on and off guitar pedals until suddenly it was all over, they disappeared and the lights came up, no encore.
It had been just the right length, and somehow the readings and the music had worked. If you hadn’t liked one half it would have been a broken event, but thankfully it had been better than I feared, a satisfying show that, very nearly, made me want to play my They Might Be Giants CDs again.
(I’ve just noticed the Guardian review, which picks up on some of the same things, but gives it two stars less than I would. I’m not sure why the reviewer needed the event to have a point. Do separate readings and concerts have points?)