I’d imagine that the musical tastes of Tech students vary a bit from the “norm” – even when you compensate for factors such as age and race, I’d imagine a few unusual names would pop through. The only time I hear techno or video game music is while listening to WREK. Thus, when I say that the concert I was at this past weekend was probably the best concert I’d ever been to, some of you are likely to understand when I tell you that nerd culture icons Jonathan Coulton and They Might Be Giants were at the Variety Playhouse on Friday, March 13.
Surprisingly, I’d never been to a concert at the Variety Playhouse. It’s a cozy venue, and I was easily able to get right up near the stage near the beginning, even though the event was sold out; many people arrived after Coulton had left the stage, making for a much tighter crowd. Another bonus for this subculture is that the screaming inherent in some fan bases (think Hanson/Miley Cyrus/Jonas Brothers, no offense to those of you that like Hanson) is kept to a minimum. Also nice was the lack of your stereotypically bad “opening band” (such as the three opening bands at a Yellowcard concert that practically made my ears bleed).
For those unfamiliar with Jonathan Coulton, he is a geek, a singer/songwriter and a former programmer. He put his first music up in 2003, and his song “Still Alive” was the credit song for 2007’s Portal. At the concert, Colton’s set felt relatively short, and stuck to more popular songs. While this was presumably traditional for his role as an opener, I know that Coulton is capable of filling the room on his own merits and would personally prefer that he co-headline rather than open. Either way, I’m happy to see him. Beginning with “The Future Soon,” a classic tale of one man’s unrequited love, mad science, cybernetics research, robot Armageddon, and eventual reacquaintance with his lost love. (If you like that one, you also should hear the cover by I Fight Dragons.) Coulton also played “Shop Vac,” “Code Monkey” (a crowd favorite, and probably familiar to many readers), and “Skullcrusher Mountain.”
Never having been to a Coulton performance, I was surprised when he broke out his Zendrum. A Zendrum is basically a cross between a sound board and a keytar, allowing him to “play” the song “Mr. Fancy Pants” live in a fairly creative way. There are several easy-to-find videos online, I highly recommend you seek one out.*
The last song in Coulton’s set was “Re: Your Brains,” in which the narrator beseeches his (former) co-worker to open the doors; after all, “We’re not unreasonable, I mean, no one’s gonna eat your eyes.” In his concert version, Coulton has the audience sing the primary chorus line, “All we want to do is eat your brains” as if the audience were zombies, a rare treat indeed.
After Coulton’s set finished, there was an unusually long delay before They Might Be Giants came to the stage. I’m aware it’s a large group with plenty of extras, but we were just standing around listening to the Variety Playhouse’s (admittedly good) filler music. A delay between sets doesn’t directly impact my decision to see a concert, but that combined with how much the bouncer-types were harassing anyone that tried to take pictures or video – even my friend from Creative Loafing with a photo badge – I’m slightly less inclined to pick Variety Playhouse when there are other options.
They Might Be Giants is a five-person group originally formed in 1982, and have made their mark in niches such as children’s music and television theme songs. The group relies on a wide variety of instruments; not simply the typical drums, guitar(s) and vocals, although those are included. Their equipment also included a keyboard, an accordion, a trombone and an electronic drum set (used for sound effects in “Why Does The Sun Shine?”). In part due to great lighting and effects, the group had an impressive stage presence. I am admittedly less familiar with They Might Be Giants than I am with Jonathan Coulton, so I was thrilled when their first song was one that I knew: “Meet the Elements,” a must-know for anyone that’s taken some form of chemistry. **
Other memorable songs include their hits from nearly twenty years ago “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)” and “Doctor Worm.” The Giants’ concert also featured a song or two by a sock puppet band; a screen was lowered, and a video camera on one side of the stage had a couple people working entertaining the puppets, who called themselves the “Avatars of They.” The puppets “performed” “What is a Shooting Star.”
Near the end of their performance, there was a surprise appearance by Homestar Runner (another musical puppet performance). At that point, They Might Be Giants requested that anyone in the crowd with a device capable of recording video*** do so and post it on YouTube, so that it could be combined into a “crowdsourced” video of the song. Two encores later, and it was time to go home. I would definitely recommend both Coulton and They Might Be Giants. Be sure to catch them when they come back to Atlanta, as they surely will.
*** So, pretty much everyone with an iPhone. So, pretty much everyone.