Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Thomas Dolby, 5.03.06, Joe's Pub

by Charlotte Deaver

Twenty-five years after his hit record, The Golden Age of Wireless, and over fifteen years after releasing much music at all other than ringtones, Thomas Dolby is once again on tour. Performing mostly old (but some newer) material at Joe's Pub last month, he sang as he twirled around numerous buttons and knobs for a loyal audience of once-and-long-time fans.

Even if you don't know the name of the song, most of us have heard his hit from the early 1980s, "She Blinded Me With Science." I remember the entire record, though, so it was fun to hear all those songs, like "One Of Our Submarines" and "Radio Silence."

Thomas Dolby wants to show us that he's a conceptual artist, but his music is pure pop. And there's something super pretentious about that. Clearly a shy sort of fellow, he comes across as one who doesn't get out of his basement or behind the great curtain very often. What would his body do on stage without all that equiptment? It's practically prosthetic, he's so tethered to it. He presents himself as some kind of technological Nordic wizard, wearing a huge, burdensome trenchcoat, which he shed, thankfully, mid-set. And all the while, let's face it: he's going for the rock beat, and so are we. He made a big deal about wishing he didn't have to play his major hit, kind of complaining about it a bit. But why? That's his bread and butter! That's his gift horse. I just wanted to shout, "Get over your ass and PLAY THE SONG!" (Some friends of mine will be pleased to hear that I did NOT, in fact, shout anything to the performer that night.)

And all those machines: what are they? In an interview for NPR he explained that although the sound source for most of the music was his computer, he has a "fetish for big dials and knobs." Taking old field measurement equipment from royal navy or us airforce, including an Ascylascope from the 1940s, he "gutted them out and retro-fitted them for midi."

Because he's all alone up there on stage, looking slightly freaky and uncomfortable, (playing with himself, playing with his toys) I found myself wondering what kind of music he listens to, if he goes to see live music, if he's married and if his wife brings him dinner everynight in his vast, sprawling (I imagined) basement, like the scientist in the movie "The Fly." A shortish, stocky guy, he definitely works out a lot (but not, of course, at a public gym (I'm making this up completely): he's got more equipment in his basement for that).

It's as though he really WANTS to get funky, but can't quite do it, socially; he has to do it by himself. This is a guy who's got a lot more fetishes, or SHOULD have a lot more fetishes, than for just dials and knobs. He's not someone who would ever tour with a band, even though some fat bass and guitars would generate a lot of heat for an otherwise dry, masterbatory, and even perhaps narcissistic performance that is geared towards nostalgia, and not, unfortunately, for immediacy.


Blogger Merujo said...

Actually, he toured with a helluva band on his "Aliens Ate My Buick" tour. FYI, he's playing the Exotic Erotic Ball in NYC in June, where he'll hopefully have some time to jam on stage with his old friend George Clinton. Thomas is really a pretty funky white English gent, with talent for miles and a rock and roll pedigree that includes work with Foreigner, Def Leppard, Joni Mitchell, George Clinton, and a pile more folks.

Got to see him here in the DC area, after the Joe's gigs, and had a great time.

10:50 PM  
Blogger Charlotte Deaver said...

Interesting! Thanks for the info. Even so, I think there's something to my perception of him that's informed by the way he presents himself. If my "imagined" Thomas Dolby does not jibe with the real guy, is that all me? 'Cos he really seems to be working the mad-scientist-anal-loner-freak image, you know?

9:43 AM  
Blogger Merujo said...

I think the whole mad scientist thing works for him, but it does project a certain isolated image of the loner from another age. (I also know him, though, as a really friendly guy who gives big smiles and warm hugs when he's not on stage, so that colors my perception!) He's also very shy, which may contribute to the aloof vibe, and he's a perfectionist, which makes him very annoyed when his equipment fails him.

I don't know if you're familiar with the tuneage on "Aliens Ate My Buick" - give that CD a listen and it might alter your impression of him a little bit - it's got much funkier stuff on it, including numbers like "Hot Sauce" that take him a good distance from the Golden Age of Wireless.

I thought of his concert as part performance art, part music. And definitely geared to warm the hearts of his old-school fanbase. He was working to reconnect with those core listeners before getting out some new music. He'll be touring again in the fall with the new stuff. Has potential to be very interesting.



1:27 PM  
Blogger Charlotte Deaver said...

Very cool -- will do. Hey, I love your blog! Just discovered it (due to your welcome comments) and haven't had time to spend with it yet but I'm looking forward to doing so . . . . I'll be in touch!

2:39 PM  

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