The last time They Might Be Giants rolled into Milwaukee (weeks before the initial COVID lockdowns of 2020), they were touring behind the 30th anniversary of their classic album Flood. While that two-and-a-half-hour “evening with” show featured material from every era of the band’s nearly 40-year career, it indeed relied heavily on the fan-favorite 1990 album in question. Four years later, on night one of TMBG’s two-night “Big Show” stint at The Pabst Theater, it was quickly clear that Johns Linnell and Flansburgh would be digging a bit deeper. Flood‘s biggest song (and arguably the band’s biggest song), “Birdhouse In Your Soul,” appeared second in the setlist. From there, it was a hardcore fan’s paradise.

Not that both nights were filled with random deep cuts. Ahead of the tour, Flansburgh explained that not only would each show be unique, the first set of each show would highlight a different, non-Flood TMBG album. For the Milwaukee stops, that meant the bulk of 1992’s Apollo 18 on night one, and the bulk of 1994’s John Henry on night two. These were curious choices: Both records represent something of a transition phase in TMBG’s career, with the former serving as the follow-up to the hard-to-follow Flood, and the latter being the first to feature a traditional backing band. Still, there were plenty of beloved hits mixed in with lesser-played album tracks to keep the sold-out crowds (both shows!) in a near-constant state of delight.

Night one featured the strongest of those beloved hits. “The Statue Got Me High,” “I Palindrome I,” and “The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)” shared time with deeper Apollo 18 cuts like “Dig My Grave,” “Narrow Your Eyes,” and the charming “Mammal.” But perhaps the biggest surprise was a full run-through of “Fingertips,” the 21-track suite of disparate micro songs (most under 10 seconds) originally meant to confound the “shuffle” feature on ’90s-era CD players. If you ever wanted to sing along to the eight-second “What’s That Blue Thing Doing Here?” Friday night was your chance.

Saturday night was no slouch, either. John Henry favorites “Snail Shell,” “Meet James Ensor,” and the sublime “The End Of The Tour” appeared up in a double set that also featured “Dirt Bike,” “No One Knows My Plan,” and the equally sublime “Unrelated Thing.” Flansburgh jokingly referred to John Henry as the “McCartney II of They Might Be Giants’ catalog,” noting that while it was initially cooly received by fans and critics, it was now “admired from afar.”

Twenty-twenty’s Flood show included oodles of other hits and oddities from TMBG’s career, and 2024’s Apollo 18 and John Henry shows were no different. “Particle Man,” “Don’t Let’s Start,” and “Lie Still, Little Bottle” (with The Stick!) popped up on night one, while “Ana Ng,” “New York City,” and “The Mesopotamians” appeared in night two. There was very little overlap between shows, and the repeat performances were both expected (“Birdhouse In Your Soul,” “Doctor Worm,” “Istanbul (Not Constantinople)”) and surprising (two nights of “Man, It’s So Loud In Here”? Be still, our hearts.)

As always with TMBG shows, various quirks and idiosyncrasies provided an underlying hum of joy: between-song banter filled with bizarre tangents and hilarious dead ends; Flansburgh constantly dragging his microphone stand across the stage, never in the same place for long; Linnell politely watching the drum and guitar solos, hands clasped like an altar boy. On Friday, Linnell revealed he had visited the Milwaukee Art Museum earlier in the day, where he had received his very first senior discount. (He turned 65 a week earlier.) On Saturday, both Johns recounted visiting 3rd St. Market Hall for lunch and then returning to their hotel rooms for afternoon naps. Flansburgh also spent a considerable amount of time Saturday night beckoning the crowd to fill the aisles of the Pabst’s lower level, much to the chagrin of security. (Thankfully, the crowd didn’t flood the stage, leading to a repeat of an infamous 1992 TMBG show at Milwaukee’s Modjeska Theatre.)

Oh, and the horns! The other “Big Show” bonus was the inclusion of a three-piece horn section (Mark Pender, Stan Harrison, Dan Levine) to round out the already terrific three-piece band (Dan Miller, Danny Weinkauf, Marty Beller). The inclusion was a welcome and boisterous one, providing accompaniment to songs that already featured horns (“Doctor Worm”), and songs that only featured horns in gonzo 1990 performances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson (“Birdhouse In Your Soul”).

“We’ve always been really lucky with our audience in that they seem up for all the things we do,” Flansburgh told us back in April. That acceptance was on full display Friday and Saturday night: Despite the focus on albums not named Flood or Lincoln, the crowds were with the band every step of the way. And kudos to They Might Be Giants for continuing to mix things up at this stage in their career. Beloved hits and countless deep cuts? Two nights weren’t enough.

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