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They Might Be Giants, Jonathan Coulton, Rialto Theatre, Jan. 30

Thirty years into an alternative-rock career that has blazed a trail for humorous, offbeat and nerdy bands, They Might Be Giants is hardly stuck playing warmed-over hits.

Last year's Join Us is every bit as strong as 1990's Flood; that becomes clear when you hear the new "When Will You Die" a few songs after the classic "Particle Man."

Beyond simple staying power, what's remarkable about the band is that the inspiration and core sentiment behind the songs of John Flansburgh and John Linnell remain unchanged. The wittiness has neither dulled nor cycled into reruns.

Despite joking that they're "burnt up husks of (their) former selves," the duo has no trouble writing a shiny song with darkly comic lyrics like, "I know how / I know why / I can picture every part of your comeuppance except / For the one remaining / Piece of the puzzle / Which is when you'll die."

Onstage, the Johns—along with guitarist Dan Miller, bassist Danny Weinkauf and drummer Marty Beller—are equally adept at energizing the crowd with sing-along choruses (2007's "The Mesopotamians" and 1988's "Cowtown" are just two examples) and going way leftfield with the children's song "Alphabet of Nations" and a late-night TV-style interlude with sock-puppet avatars.

The crowd participation took the form of a people-vs.-apes shout-off, splitting the theater's left and right sides with each fist pump and chant. The (left side) people won, but Flansburgh warned that the apes would simply begin infiltrating the general population.

The 100-minute show featured two encores. The first was just the Johns, with Linnell on accordion, singing 1996's "How Can I Sing Like a Girl?" and then the band rejoining them for 1998's "Dr. Worm." They Might Be Giants closed with "The Guitar (The Lion Sleeps Tonight)," but not before assigning random crowd members with nicknames like Butternut and The Apostle.

Opener Jonathan Coulton led his three-piece band through a jaunty set of geek-rock, perfectly matched to TMBG. He had the crowd shouting along to a zombie chorus at the end, while "Sucker Punch" and "Good Morning Tucson," from 2011's Flansburgh-produced Artificial Heart, showed a clever songwriting hand.

More by Eric Swedlund

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