Recap: Thomas Dolby’s Free At Noon concert at World Cafe Live, 3/23/12
Thomas Dolby is an inventive musician. In a literal sense, he invented some of the key software responsible for ringtone technology. Within his songs, he also invents genres, parallel universes, and adventure stories that defy the laws of space and time. On his current Time Capsules Tour, Dolby has a video-recording “time capsule” with him: a three-seater trailer that allows fans and fellow musicians to record a 30 second video for the future. Since his music career began in the ’80s—and, even during his 20-year hiatus from recording (during which he worked in Silicon Valley)—Dolby has spent a lot of time effecting and imagining the future.
Though Dolby seems obsessed with the future, he is known primarily for his major contributions to the history of electronic music. He earned his stage name when, at 13, his friends began to call him out for constantly tinkering with electronic music equipment. Since those early days, Dolby has written original music and also produced for other artists. His 1982 hit “She Blinded Me With Science” is not only his most famous single, but also likely a depiction of how Dolby sees himself. In the video, Dolby is brought to a home for deranged scientists, but runs away from treatment. Dolby wants to be mad. In many ways, he continues to cultivate this image, even down to the background image of him on the official Thomas Dolby website (which links to the Flat Earth Society, a group that lists Dolby as member 00001). In the photo, Dolby looks the way Ben Franklin might have imaged someone of the year 2012, with gold-tinted goggles and a clunky headset complete with microphone, video camera and antennas poking up from each ear. Beside him, gold lettering in a typeface that calls to mind the gears of a pocket watch advertises his Time Capsule Tour 2012.
On Friday, Dolby’s tour and time capsule stopped by World Café for a Free At Noon performance. He played mostly from his new three-part album, A Map of the Floating City. On the album, it’s a leap to go from the jazzy, sexy “Love is a Loaded Pistol” (in which Billie Holiday visits Dolby for a night), to the Appalachian bluegrass/techno mash-up that is “Toad Lickers.” Socially and sonically, those are actually conservative conceits for Dolby. “Spice Train” sounds like a Flamenco band dropped acid and then collaborated with Swedish House Mafia. It starts with the line “one big bazaar” but could probably also start “one big bizarre” and work just as well, since “Spice Train” discusses human diversity in terms of garage sales, Spiderman, and cities that start with the letter “B.” Yet, for all their deliberate diversity, Dolby’s songs do have one common theme, which stands out when he introduces them live. Whether they’re about “eco-hippies” (“Toad Lickers”) or a waitress’s night with Dolby’s jet-lagged evil twin (“Evil Twin Brother”), they all occupy a world where technology and romance are inexorably intertwined. Sometimes this makes them more human. Sometimes they’re too far gone.
Dolby’s stories are typically unbelievable, even when he draws inspiration from real research that he hears presented at the TED conferences, where he is music director. His talent isn’t in inventing believable worlds; it’s in how he populates them. Often, his characters seem as impossible as his stories, but he uses his remarkable understanding of technology and sensory experience to make them real. In “Evil Twin Brother,” Dolby’s imagined eastern European waitress, Yalena, speaks in manipulated samples of Regina Spektor’s voice. The Spektor clips mingle with a club-inspired chorus and descriptions of carrot cake and downtown New York, bringing Yalena’s voice out of the song and into listeners’ ears as they dance to the same music that she does and visualize what the protagonist sees. For all of the disbelief that Dolby fans are expected to suspend from character to context, Dolby rewards them for it. A recent instance of his commitment to bringing his listeners into his music involved actually creating a virtual world. The video game, in which players searched for “the Floating City” (and along the way bartered, collaborated and competed for new Dolby tracks), culminated in the 2011 release of A Map of the Floating City.
Of course, sometimes even devout Dolby followers can’t understand him, which could be part of the mad scientist charm. Friday’s show sounded like a nightclub where the theme was mash-ups between different kinds of world music. Instead of young internationals dancing to unpredictable electronic compositions at 3 a.m., as they do in “Evil Twin Brother,” middle-aged people in polo shirts and boating shoes bobbed and swayed, looking mostly delighted—and occasionally confused at noon. One man asked his young son to explain something Dolby had said, exposing a culture gap between Dolby’s fan base and his propensity for the latest technology. The strangest surprise came when Dolby defied concert ritual and left cheering fans without an encore. World Café’s Helen Leicht came on to wrap up the NPR recording and without even asking what the crowd wanted, piped up, “I can sing it—Science!” She jokingly sang another line and a few audience members joined her. It was an unorthodox encore experience, but maybe that’s exactly what the mad scientist wanted. —Naomi Shavin
1. Commercial Breakup
2. Love Is A Loaded Pistol
3. Evil Twin Brother
4. Spice Train
5. Road To Reno
6. The Toad Lickers
7. I Love You Goodbye