I’ll admit it – as you can probably guess from my being a synth fiend, it was Thomas Dolby’s use of synths that first drew me to him and his music. As a fan of good pop music, Dolby’s songs like “Europa and the Pirate Twins” really appealed to me (and still do). And while I can understand the reason that most articles today still hang their hat on one particular Dolby MTV hit from the ’80s, it unfortunately seems to discourage a more thorough exploration of a varied body of songwriting and collaborations that has never been tied to a specific genre or instrument type. But after all Dolby, whose career has included work as a session musician, solo artist, soundtrack composer, sound technology developer, musical director for TED and now even game designer, has never followed just one game plan.
I was somewhat guilty of falsely categorizing Dolby too. As I heard songs from his latest album, A Map of the Floating City, It surprised me just how “Amerikana” the songs from that section of the album were. Even though I’m familiar with all of Dolby’s catalog, this seemed like a real departure to me. I realized how wrong I was, however, as I was enjoying Dolby’s recent concert in Chicago where he played music from across his entire 30-year career. One thing I’ve always been sure of is that Dolby has the rare talent of being a keyboardist and synthesist who skillfully uses those tools to realize a song and tell a story, as opposed to producing keyboard and synth songs that also happen to tell a story (or don’t tell a story at all). For me, it’s something like the difference between the way Van Halen uses guitars guitars vs the way Mark Knopfler does. What didn’t click for me until the concert were the stylistic threads that have been in Dolby’s music all along and across all of his albums, whether pop, jazz, funk, techno, or yes, even country – always delivered in Dolby’s own inimitable style (after all, even Europa and the Pirate Twins has a harmonica part, right?).
So as I enjoyed the concert from my almost-close-enough-to-Dolby’s-keyboard-rig-to-touch-it vantage point, one part of me was impressed with the minimal rig, consisting of just a Yamaha Motif 8, an M-Audio Trigger Finger, a Roland A-300Pro keyboard controller, and a laptop, with which Dolby did everything from plenty of two-handed keyboard playing, knocking off some great keyboard solos, and live triggering of samples, to building the beginnings of songs from scratch by creating and layering multiple loops live, on the fly like he did on his Sole Inhabitant Tour.
But while listening to the tragic love story road trip strains of “The Road to Reno,” the funky and infectious “Hyperactive,” the power-pop of “Commercial Breakup,” the bluegrass-tinged “I Love You, Goodbye,” the humorous pop of “Airhead,” the atmospheric new wave of “One of Our Submarines,” the reggae cadence of “My Brain is Like a Sieve,” and the middle-eastern underground dance vibe of “Spice Train,” I saw a bigger picture. I admire the way Thomas Dolby has embraced the world around him, making his experiences with so many different and amazing people, in so many different and amazing places around the world, a part of his own unique signature style of music – creating a rich, fun, and satisfying experience for any listener willing to give it a try. The new album and tour were well worth the wait – but I’d be lying if I said I’m not eager to see what Mr. Dolby will come up with next (and quietly hoping I won’t have to wait another 20 years to find out!).
More pictures from the Thomas Dolby’s Chicago show can be viewed here.