JAM Magazine Concert Reviews

March 25, 2012
The Birchmere
Alexandria, VA USA
Review by Craig Hunter Ross
Photos by Craig Hunter Ross

Thomas Dolby

"Good evening, come send a message to the future," exclaimed the young lady, "come enter Thomas Dolby's Time Capsule." Adorned in full steam-punk attire, her arm fully extended in a fashion similar to that of a game show model, the young woman encouraged people to step inside and record a video message to the future.

The custom built trailer (err...time capsule) outside the doors of The Birchmere definitely drew eyes of curiosity from both the casual concert attendees and hardcore pseudoscientific fans alike. One couldn't help but think that somewhere within time and space, Charles Babbage, Jules Verne and Andy Warhol sat smiling at the spectacle as the show time drew near.

Dolby's audience this evening is a melting pot of socially diverse people, with hearty portions pouring in from the worlds of science, fashion and art. Of course the common denominator that brought this odd assortment together is Dolby's music. All were eagerly anticipating the musical surprises this son of a distinguished archeology professor and mathematician had in store for them. He is currently on the road supporting his recent recording, A Map of the Floating City, his first full-length studio album since Astronauts and Heretics nearly two decades ago.

Accompanied as always by a selection of synthesizers and his trusted laptop, Dolby is also joined on this tour by a drummer and guitarist. The trio opens with "Commercial Breakup" from his first album The Golden Age of Wireless. The evening's agenda is quickly set as Dolby shares the story of his uncle's tragic death as a World War II submarine crewman. His synth rig comes to life with a rich tapestry of patches and samples leading into the said inspired, "One of Our Submarines".

Dolby would continue to spend the evening telling stories and weaving tales of his song's creation, life experiences and technological achievement amidst his music. He would detail the recording of new material, which he completed last year at his personal recording studio. The studio is named The Nutmeg of Consolation, and is located in the garden of his North England sea side beach house. It's actually housed within a self contained 1930s lifeboat retrofitted to be powered entirely by renewable energy. "Makes it kind of hard to record on rainy days, but if the oceans rise, I'm all set!" quipped Dolby, soliciting laughter and applause from the crowd.

Several songs from his latest release would comprise the majority of the middle portion of his set. These tunes included "Evil Twin Brother", "Road to Reno" and "Love is a Loaded Pistol" being especially well received. The highlight of the newer numbers was definitely "The Toad Lickers." Before the song, the band was joined onstage by Aaron Jonah Lewis on banjo, providing the true bluegrass feel the tune called for. Lewis (along with cohort Ben Belcher), was discovered by Dolby at an English alternative country music festival and opens for him on this current tour.

A stretch of classics and fan favorites would follow in rapid succession with "I Love You Goodbye", "Europa and the Pirate Twins" and the enigmatic "Field Work" (a collaboration from Ryuichi Sakamoto's Illustrated Musical Encyclopedia). The building crescendo of music led up to Dolby's biggest hits to close the show.

As the band geared up for 1988 hit "Airhead", Dolby realized there was no bass line programmed within his rig. With the cool and calm of a seasoned surgeon, (and demonstrating a complete antithesis to the song), Dolby played and sequenced the bass line within seconds and then simply turned to the band and said, "There we go!" With that, the trio was off to the races as though nothing had ever happened.

The group launched into "Hyperactive" from Flat Earth, causing some to wonder if they were indeed in a time capsule that had been set to arrive in 1983. Listening to the lyrics, one was left to ponder whether or not Dolby had any idea at the time how prophetic the song's lyric "Hyperactive in my bones, Hyperactive in your phones" would one day be. The musician is the founder of Headspace, the firm responsible for the technology that brought custom ringtones to cell phones around the world.

The frenzied audience would now be treated to a great story of Dolby's relationship to British scientist and TV presenter Magnus Pyke. He showed numerous examples of Pyke shouting out his infamous "Science!" line, which of course segued into Dolby's mega international hit "She Blinded Me with Science". It concluded the set to thunderous applause. Returning to the stage for an encore, the world-beat laden "Spice Train" kept the crowd on their feet. With the hour growing late, it seemed more than apropos the evening would come to a close with "Silk Pyjamas".

The tour's Time Capsule concept could not have been more appropriately conceived. Through his performances, Thomas Dolby is taking his fans on a joyous journey through his past and providing them an exciting glimpse into a bountiful musical future. Should the "time capsule" land in a town near you, don't miss the chance to join in on this mercurial musical journey.