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Thomas Dolby

(11 Apr 2012: Showbox at the Market — Seattle, WA)

If I was informed, while daydreaming of wireless’ golden age as a kid in 1982, that one day Thomas Dolby would be touring with banjo players and singing about toad-licking Welsh eco-hippies, my plan of not living past 40 would definitely have been reinforced.


Plans change, however; perspectives also change over the course of 30 years. But as much as many things change, others manage to stay the same. Dolby, on a year-long campaign of re-introduction after spending much of the last two decades immersed in hi-tech pursuits, is at least as good a songwriter as he was when he left us with Astronauts & Heretics in 1992. Moreover, the synth wizard is probably a better entertainer than ever.


Dolby once again provided these qualifications—as if he had something to prove—in an expectedly stylish, unforgettable performance at Seattle’s famed Showbox Theater, one of the last stops of a spring North American ‘Time Capsule’ tour in support of his new record, A Map of the Floating City.


After the bulk of the audience settled into chairs (a rarity) on the dance floor, the bluegrass/roots duo of Aaron Jonah Lewis and Ben Belcher promptly took the stage, fiddle and banjo at the ready. I did not count the number of raised eyebrows. Lewis, clad in a park ranger’s summer attire—tight khaki shorts and all—called the numbers as the pair proceeded to blow the audience away. A half-hour of standards, obscurities and charming banter later, the decidedly hip multi-instrumentalists received one of the most thunderous ovations of any opening act I’ve witnessed in quite some time.


Some of the crowd took advantage of the intermission to record a video “message to the future” in the time capsule parked out front, supervised by one of Dolby’s lovely assistants. The wheeled apparatus, resembling a Jules Verne customization of a tiny Airstream trailer, was a big hit.


Those dashing off for another drink (or to sit in Dolby’s capsule) barely had enough time to do so, as the singer—mindful of the workday night—took to the stage at approximately the scheduled time. With drummer Mat Hector and guitarist Kevin Armstrong to his right, the original steam punk launched into the first surprise of a career-spanning, keep-‘em-guessing set: the oft-forgotten “Commercial Breakup”. 


Gone was the video screen, the light show of yesterday; gone was the hair. With a funky, tasseled cap accentuating an impeccable, perhaps Mediterranean-inspired wardrobe, Dolby enthusiastically continued to marry the past with the present with the classic follow-ups “One of Our Submarines” and “The Flat Earth;” the latter’s understated beauty proved to be an early highlight.


There haven’t been too many virtuoso keyboardists in modern pop history; a relative handful, including Dolby’s synth-pop peer, Howard Jones, and Keith Emerson come to mind as being centers of attention onstage. It was a delight, then, to see Dolby at work—- even with a vastly compacted, stripped down setup compared to the synthesizer banks of yesterday. Tapping out the signature punctuation of “Europa and the Pirate Twins” on a trigger pad with one hand while playing the melody with the other; aided by a laptop, setting in motion all of the sampled intricacies of “Hyperactive” and “Airhead”—all fantastic, fascinating stuff to witness. And, while Dolby has accomplished this all in a solo show before, the inclusion of Armstrong (who worked on The Flat Earth album) and Hector added fullness and flourishes to the perfectly mixed sound.


Dolby’s son Graham, who flew out from England to be with his dad for the final leg of the tour, spelled Hector behind the kit for the rollicking “Evil Twin Brother”—so rollicking, in fact, that one wished that the dance floor was available.


Aaron Jonah Hill, conveniently on hand, added his banjo to the new song, “Road To Reno”, and stuck around for some more electronic-meets-organic odes to Americana, “Toad Lickers”, “I Scare Myself” and one of Dolby’s true masterpieces, “I Love You Goodbye”.


An engaging storyteller, Dolby prefaced almost every one of his numbers with a humorous anecdote. He recalled Billie Holiday coming to him in a dream, which inspired Dolby’s jazz homage, “Love is a Loaded Pistol;” the singer explained how he discovered the groove behind “I Love You Goodbye” while witnessing a late-night roadhouse gig packed with legendary bluesmen in New Orleans—and how he followed it up with a too-early breakfast in a bowling alley, plus a surreal stop at Ernie K-Doe’s famous Mother-in-Law Lounge.


Dolby extolled his old friend Ryuichi Sakamoto’s genius before jumping into their brilliant one-off 1985 collaboration, “Fieldwork”.  This rendition’s pace was not quite as frenetic and sweepingly grand as the original recording, but to hear it live after so many years was incredible, nonetheless.


The keyboardist could’ve called it a night after the obligatory “She Blinded Me with Science”, but there were more tricks up Dolby’s turned-up sleeves.


During the opening strains of the exotic “Spice Train”, belly dancers appeared onstage—- and anyone without a notebook to keep score could’ve easily forgotten the previous 90 minutes. After Seattle’s Fleurs d’Egypt troupe waved their goodbyes, Dolby treated the crowd—who had risen to their feet well before the encore—to another of his dance-prompting compositions, the carefree “Silk Pyjamas”.


An arm-in-arm bow to the audience, and Dolby & company were gone, leaving a room full of mostly veteran converts to wonder when they’ll have so much fun again. Judging by how much fun the evening’s host seemed to be having, I don’t think they’ll have too much of a wait.


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Thomas Dolby is fond of hats. After a seven-city multimedia tour of the U.S. in October, the '80s icon can add one more to his crowded closet.
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PopMatters caught up with Dolby by phone as he prepared to depart England for a seven-city solo "lecture tour" of America. Using visuals, he'll be speaking about his experiences with the game, providing some background on the new record, and performing some of his new compositions.
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