Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Thomas Dolby

I went with Isaac and my friend Art and his girlfriend Yong Mi to the Thomas Dolby show in Royal Oak. It was a rainy night; I had offered Art and Yong Mi tickets in exchange for him driving. I'm glad we did, what with the combination of construction and wet roads. We stopped for dinner at the IHOP. I think that's the first time I've been to an IHOP in at least 25 years.

The show was a lot of fun. The venue was pretty small, with no reserved seating, but it was not very crowded, so we had a good view of the stage, and probably could have wedged our way up to the front to shake Dolby's hand, had we been so inclined. T. D. said that this was his first performance in the area in 18 or 19 years! He also said he had not released new material in 15 years, which I suppose is true -- time flies by! Although the crowd was not screaming, rock-star excited (are there any bands or individual stars that still inspire screaming excitement these days?) they were decently enthusiastic.

I became a Dolby fan way back in the early days of MTV with the release of "She Blinded Me with Science." Although I quickly became sick of that single, which is perhaps his silliest song ever, I found a lot to like in his other material, and I started tracking down and collecting T. D. vinyl. I had a copy of the British release of _Golden Age of Wireless_, which had a couple of songs not on the American release -- "Liepzig" and "Urges." I spent endless hours trying to puzzle out his lyrics, which when I finally found them printed, turned out to be rather different than my guesses, and sometimes in French or German!

I had the "Dolby's Cube" remixes. I started finding releases from people he worked with -- the single "Build Me a Bridge" by Adele Bertei, who sang backup on _The Flat Earth_, and Lene Lovich's album _Stateless_ -- somewhere I have a casette of the King Biscuit Flour Hour show where Lovich performs "New Toy." I eventualy tracked down a CD of _Aliens Ate My Buick_, although I could only find a Japanese import. In fact, not only has T. D. not released new material in some time, but several of his albums seem to be out of print. So the only CDs he had for sale at the show were _Golden Age of Wireless_ and the collection _Retrospectacle_.

As far as I can recall, which isn't very far these days, his major album releases were as follows:

_Golden Age of Wireless_

_The Flat Earth_ (perhaps his best album)

_The Gate to the Minds' Eye_ (instrumental techno for computer animation)

_Astronauts and Heretics_

_Aliens Ate My Buick_

I may be missing one. Not a huge amount of material. But Dolby is also a sideman and producer -- I believe he actually played keyboards on Foreigner 4. He has worked on a couple of silicon valley startups; I don't know the details, but Yong Mi says he had something to do with polyphonic ring-tones.

Anyway, back to the show. He opened with "Leipzig," a little-known song, and did a number of songs from _Golden Age_. Standouts were "Wind Power," which he introduced with audio generated from satellite observations of sunspots, and "One of Our Submarines." For one song, "Budapest by Blimp," he lowered his keyboard and sat down to play, giving a bit of the ambience of a lounge jazz song. His last song was "She Blinded Me with Science," but we got one quick encore out of him -- "Airhead," which is kind of a silly song.

Dolby was never a terribly strong singer live, and this show was late in the tour, so his voice was a bit fried, but he was enthusiastic, and gregarious -- he spoke to us at length between songs. He is an interesting songwriter. He seems very drawn to jazz; his stuff is more harmonically interesting than most pop. He also loves gear and the fun you can have playing with a synthesizer, and seems to love to use the studio as an instrument. His albums always seemed to be a couple of years ahead of their time, and has aged well; his lyrics are oblique and not particularly topical, but give more of a wash of meanings.

He had a stripped-down setup using Logic Audio running on a Mac, triggered mainly, it seemed, by an M-Audio box that gave him a number of samples for each track; for a couple of songs he "built them up from scratch," as he put it, which really meant laying down several lines and getting them looping with Logic as a live sequencer. That was pretty fun to watch. He had a projection screen and a guy mixing video live as well, and the video content was nice, although it was sometimes very strange to see a Dolby perhaps over twenty-five years younger on the screen with the Dolby of today! He also wore a "head-cam," which gave us a Dolby's-eye view of his performance, as the video guy mixed it in. That was kind of intriguing for a gear-head like me.

I recognized most of what I saw, but there are two pieces of gear that I am still baffled by. He claims to be on the net a lot, so maybe I will ask him what they were!

T. D., if you read this -- release some new material! And we'd like to see you again. Don't make us wait another 18 or 19 years!

2 comments:

ajd said...

Thomas Dolby's discography on AMG. The bio is also educational. Dolby's site has info on the equipment he uses; apparently the knobs and dials devices are MIDI-adapted analog tone generators. I refuse to guess how that was done.

Paul R. Potts said...

Hmmm, I just looked through "Lazlo's Discography Machine: Thomas Dolby." It confirms that I've heard _just_ about everything, including his cover of a Joni Mitchell song "The Jungle Line," "Puppet Theater," "Urban Tribal," and "Samson and Delilah" (although I can't remember that one). "Urban Tribal" is an interesting song.

I've never heard his stuff on the Howard the Duck soundtrack. I think I'm grateful for that. He also had a track on the soundtrack for Toys ("The Mirror Song.") That has kind of a cool Tori Amos track on it too. I had forgotten his collaboration with Prefab Sprout.

Getting rid of all my vinyl was partly to avoid the risk of any more of my "this way lies madness" collecting of remixes, alternative versions, etc...

It seems it has been more like 12 years, not 15 years, since he released a full-blown studio album. Still, it is past time!

I've been reading Dolby's blog about his gear. Some weird stuff. Definitely required reading for audio geeks! The two pieces of gear in question are "Approved Signal Generator retrofitted for MIDI," which looks like a giant antique metronome, and "1947 USAF signal generator retrofitted for MIDI" which is all-black and so hard to see. Ahhh! It becomes clearer -- he is actually just using them as assignable parameter controllers. He mentioned a couple of oscilloscopes, too, but I did not notice them.