- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 23, 2003

“I really enjoy writing for kids, but I get so much more satisfaction out of performing for adults,” says guitarist John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants from his Brooklyn home. The quirky rockers bring their adult game to the 9:30 Club on Tuesday.

Though the two Johns (Mr. Flansburgh and keyboardist-accordionist John Linnell) have had a cult following for 20 years, mostly among college students, they briefly hit it big when 1990’s “Flood” spawned “Particle Man” and “Istanbul (Not Constantinople).”

2002 saw the release of the documentary “Gigantic: A Tale of Two Johns” (just released on DVD) and a surprise Grammy win for “Boss of Me,” the “Malcolm in the Middle” TV theme.

“People always say it’s an honor to be nominated.” Mr. Flansburgh says, “but it’s a stone-cold gas to win.”

The Johns also performed the theme for Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show” and music for the second “Austin Powers” film. But their claim to fame these days is children’s music, a genre where “odd lyrical motivation” gets rewarded, Mr. Flansburgh says.

“It hasn’t been a tough transition.”

It does seem a perfect fit for them. “Because it’s very melodic, some people have always felt like there was a core of innocence about what we were doing,” he says.

And both “Particle” and “Istanbul” were featured on Steven Spielberg’s “Tiny Toon Adventures,” a show ostensibly for children but loaded with adult humor. “It’s essentially never been off TV since it started, so a lot of people’s first exposure to our music was through that show.”

“No!” (a perfect title for a children’s album) is billed as the first TMBG disc for the entire family and includes interactive games and singalongs when played on a computer. Children will like “Fibber Island,” where “our house is made of pie,” while adults can see the irony of the line “no one sings along” being sung in chipmunk-type harmonies.

“In the Middle” could have come from a cheesy ‘50s traffic-safety film, and “Violin” is a suitably silly classical ditty. “I Am A Grocery Bag” seems aimed at Whole Foods-shopping parents (“salsa and pickles and organic grains”).

“But I have to say, as a performer, I’ve spent the last 15 years in bars playing for adults, so I have a hard time cleaning up my potty mouth,” Mr. Flansburgh says.

“I think our adult material is actually kind of sophisticated, whereas our children’s material is just, um, also sophisticated, actually,” he says, laughing. “Certainly by kids’ standards. By Raffi standards, it’s Tchaikovsky.”

• • •

More soulful than your average jam band thanks to slide guitar master Warren Haynes’ lyrics and vocals, Gov’t Mule comes to the 9:30 Club tomorrow and Saturday as part of its “Rebirth of the Mule” tour.

Mr. Haynes formed Mule in 1994 with bassist Allen Woody while both were with the Allman Brothers Band, but since Mr. Woody’s death three years ago, the band had been rotating bassists until it added Andy Hess in October.

As a tribute to Mr. Woody, Gov’t Mule has just released “The Deepest End,” a two-CD and DVD document of a six-hour concert in May in New Orleans with tons of guest musicians, and not just bassists. Fortunately, the jamming here isn’t overly self-indulgent and doesn’t drown out the melody or the pained moans of Mr. Haynes.

Perhaps because of his time with the tragedy-riddled Allman Brothers, Mr. Haynes’ songs tend to be dark, focusing on temptation and (maybe) redemption. “Banks of the Deep End,” possibly the strongest cut here, is a bluesy tale of “searching for a reason to go astray.” “Trying Not To Fall” continues the theme of avoiding the abyss: Jason Newsted guests here, perhaps because this theme is familiar territory for Metallica, his former band.

The ominous “Blindman in the Dark” is broken up by Karl Denson’s bizarre jazzy flute interlude, but no such luck for the apocalyptic “Which Way Do We Run?” and its insane narrator’s images.

The traditional “John The Revelator” becomes a honky-tonk Southern gothic, thanks to the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. The instrumental jam “Sco-Mule” also lightens the evening’s mood.

On the gospelly “I Shall Return,” we’re convinced that Mr. Haynes is “slipping away” but that “I shall return from the depths of my own hell.” The disc-two closer, “Soulshine,” declares that “soulshine is better than sunshine, better than moonshine,” inviting the crowd to sway and sing along.

And finally, it’s in the liner notes for “Soulshine” where you’ll spot a perfect definition of a jam-band song: “Always different but still always similar.”

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