September 2, 2004

Heated Rock N' Roll

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Last Saturday contained nearly every permutation of terrible weather: scorching heat, sweltering humidity, phlegmatic thunderstorms, and billowing mist. The entire Arts Quad was covered in sweat and rain, forming a hideous, muddy cesspool of Frisbee players and sobbing infants; it was not dissimilar to the apocalypse. But, surprisingly, for three hours, the heat gave way to a nice breeze and the clouds began to retreat in order to allow underground-pop legends They Might Be Giants to play a free concert in front of a huge crowd of students and their little sisters.

It was not without a wealth of misery, however. The Cornell Concert Commission had been working since 6:30 a.m. to erect a large stage and secure the area from any antagonists. As a growing crowd began to encircle the platform and crewmembers began moving barriers and equipment, loafing police officers busily gargled coffee and shot the shit, dryly observing TMBG bassist Tony Maimone discussing R.E.M. records in a corner of McGraw Hall. TMBG vocalist John Flansburgh reflected on his Cornell past; his father, mother, and brother all attended the university and have donated thousands of dollars as trustees emeritus. A more cynical reviewer might hypothesize that this led Cornell to select the band solely as compensation for the family’s donations to the campus. An even more cynical reviewer might hypothesize that, as a free event, Cornell paid TMBG even more money than they would normally receive from the institution.

The doting crowd apparently paid little attention to these possible machinations, however, preferring to listen to the gentle melodies and slacker-metaphysical lyrics of Aussie opener Ben Lee. He certainly knew how to woo the crowd: “It’s so fuckin’ awesome to be here. I love playing colleges. Hated going, though. I dropped out after two weeks.” Which means, of course, that he was cooler than every single person in the audience (except, perhaps, those hippies with Communist stars tattooed to their shins). Rocking back and forth in a somnificent daze with his eyes closed, Lee proceeded to gently sing the refrain: “Awake is the new sleep.” In a set that ran the gamut from cataractous power chords to gamboling ditties, Lee performed a set that included a cover of Modest Mouse’s “Float On,” “Serious Mythology of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs,” and a new song, “Catch My Disease” — a disease apparently consisting of lethargy and vacant-mindedness with a vintage ska rhythm. The audience was somewhat subdued by the traces of the afternoon’s volcanic heat eruption, but eventually made their way over to Lee’s performance. But, when implored to do some “Dashboard Confessional shit” [i.e. sing-along], the audience contented itself by nervously laughing or by simply ignoring him.

By this point, the Quad was swarming with TMBG fans eager for free music and Rock the Vote pins. More diverse than a typical Cornell show, the audience consisted of everyone from pink-haired Cascadilla High School slutbombs to grumpy professors drowning in their tweed jackets. While there was nary a whiff of marijuana or drop of lubrication, there were healthy amounts of cancerous tobacco flowing through the agitated crowd, as one student yelled, “What the fuck is all this shit?” to the Rock the Vote bus. Unfortunately, there was no reply because he was talking to a parked vehicle.

The band arrived on stage to staggering applause with their jagged, jazzy pop that owes equal debts to Frank Zappa and new-wave (Elvis Costello, Tonio K.). The band has been around for nearly two decades, and clearly know how to combine their instruments and shift time signatures without a missed beat. The touring second guitarist (who has clearly done his homework on Sabbath and King Crimson) constantly exceeded the range of the other band-members, delving into spazz-rock gales of feedback and riffage quite removed from the band’s usual range. Rushing through a 20-song set that compiled tracks from Flood, Apollo 18, and their latest album, The Spine, the band offered glam ballads, goofball kitsch, and sincere romance, often in the same song. “Stalk of Wheat,” for example, whips John Linnell’s accordion through jazz patterns and rockabilly rhythms. The lengthy “Fingertips” careens around punk thrusts, nerd-garage, ’50s skat, and prom highlight. As if this wasn’t enough, the band also exposed its legendary wit, riffing on everything from sound-check problems to Ezra Cornell’s statue, though Flansburgh’s best line was probably the now-infamous “It’s very exciting to be so close to downtown Ithaca.”

Capping their set with an encore that included “the wave” and a good-bye to the “people in the back that don’t care about what’s happening,” the band packed up, leaving their legacy with fans until the Concert Commission continues its semester with Reel Big Fish at Barton Hall on October 3.

Archived article by Alex Linhardt
Red Letter Daze Editor