Thomas Dolby

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Synth Music Innovator's Nightclub Performance

by Geary Yelton

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Armed with a Yamaha Motif 8 and an arsenal of soft synths, 

Thomas Dolby gave a rousing performance of old and new material.

FRESH FROM the previous week’s appearance at SXSW, Thomas Dolby and his band played for an enthusiastic audience of fewer than 300 fans at the Handlebar, a popular nightclub in Greenville, South Carolina. Although the venue was scarcely half full, the crowd of mostly 40- and 50-somethings responded as if Dolby’s music was fresher than ever. A few months ago he launched his first studio album in almost 20 years, and as someone pointed out, going 28 years without a hit record is bound to affect the size of your audience. If you could have gone and chose to skip it, though, you really missed out.

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Who knew that an electronic music pioneer could depend on

traditional bluegrass instrumentation to get the crowd on its feet?

Practically everyone who listened to popular music in the early-to-mid-’80s was aware of Thomas Dolby, thanks largely to heavy rotation on the fledgling network MTV. Hits like “She Blinded Me with Science” and “Hyperactive” helped etch his name in pop’s collective consciousness.

Over the course of 100 minutes and 16 songs—five of them from his latest album, A Map of the Floating City—Dolby gave a strong performance that accurately re-created his studio wizardry onstage and demonstrated his ample talent for songcraft. He was backed by Kevin Armstrong, who has served as his guitarist off and on since the beginning, and veteran drummer Mat Hector. Joining them onstage for a few songs was award-winning fiddle and banjo player Aaron Jonah Lewis, who appeared as the opening act alongside multi-instrumentalist Ben Belcher.

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Dolby enthralled his audience with 

familiar tunes and the fascinating stories

behind them.

Dolby and friends opened up with “Commercial Breakup,” a song from 1982’s breakthrough The Golden Age of Wireless, followed by the same album’s “One of Our Submarines,” explaining that it was inspired by his uncle whose submarine was lost at sea during World War II. Other popular favorites included “Europa and the Pirate Twins,” “Airhead,” “Hyperactive,” and “My Brain Is Like a Sieve” from 1988’s Aliens Ate My Buick (“It would be ironic if I forget the words to this one”). Predictably enough, he wrapped up the show with a stirring rendition of “She Blinded Me with Science,” followed by two encores before his final goodnight.

Between numbers, Dolby told amusing stories revolving around the songs. For instance, he said he began writing the song “I Love You, Goodbye” while visiting New Orleans. Although the song conjures images of the bayou country and local authorities suspicious of outsiders, he got his biggest laugh of the evening when he told of someone asking, “Do you even know which state of the union the Everglades are in?” The audience also got a kick out of his explaining how he sampled Dr. Magnus Pike, a scientist who often appeared on British television and for whom worldwide fame came from simply uttering the word “Science!” on Dolby’s biggest hit.

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Dolby played chords and piano parts on a Yamaha Motif 8 and relied on software instruments running on a MacBook Pro for most synthesizer and acoustic instrument sounds. On two small USB keyboards, he triggered samples with his left hand and played lead parts with his right, explaining, “I asked my friends to supply some samples for this shiny silver box here.” The bass parts were almost entirely sequenced, and although the other band members sang backup, I heard additional vocals streaming from the computer as well. From where I was sitting, the sound quality in the Handlebar was superb, and earplugs were unnecessary for all but the most cautious in the crowd.

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Drummer Mat Hector gave the Roland

Octapads a real workout during some of

Dolby’s biggest hits from the ’80s.

Parked in front of the Handlebar was Dolby’s streampunky chrome- and brass-plated teardrop trailer dubbed the Time Capsule. Before and after the show, participants had the opportunity to record a 30-second video message to future viewers, complete with special effects. The band’s North American tour still has 23 more dates to go, including sold-out shows in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. In May, the tour will continue with a swing through Europe.