Sunday, 4 November 2007

where's Runnicles? flying south again tonight - Thomas Dolby plays the Carling Academy, Islington

In another one of the mad dashes south to catch a single concert for which this blog is justly famous (or for which it would be famous, if it were famous, which it probably isn't), on morning of Wednesday 10th October, I jumped on a plane down to Stansted in order to hear Thomas Dolby live, and have the opportunity to misquote a line from his song Flying North (although, given that's based on the fact that most planes head north immediately after taking off, to do with flying fuel efficient routes in grand circles, switching the compass point makes it somewhat meaningless).

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I should also point out, right at the start of this review, that this is going to be neither objective nor unbiased, due in large part to the fact that there is a glaring conflict of interest: Mr Dolby (not his real name) is our uncle.

As such I've been a fan of Dolby's music for as long as I can remember. I can remember, for example, dancing around with my brothers to such hits from the 1988 Aliens Ate My Buick album as Hot Sauce (and listening to it again now, and the nature of some of the lyrics, I'm a little surprised my parents didn't mind). However, he hasn't produced an album since 1994's The Gate to the Mind's Eye (well, this isn't quite true, there's been a 'best of album', some remixes and several live recordings but no new studio album). In fairness, he's been busy working at his company Beatnik, which is responsible for software in some roughly two thirds of the worlds mobile phones and is used to create the polyphonic version of the annoying Nokia ringtone. I should stress that that sound is not representative of what you hear at a Dolby concert. However, it has meant that at every family gathering for the last decade or so, he's had to put up with me asking him when he's going to record a new album.

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So it was excellent news when a year or so ago he decided to return to music. He started out with a solo tour of the states, finishing up with two gigs in London. In part because one of these was at the Wireless festival (which is televised), I decided not to make the trip down. When it turned out that only 30 seconds was broadcast, and after the rave reviews of the Scala gig that preceded it, I rather wished I had. I contented myself with the rather fine DVD and CD that he made out of the American performances. However, when he was visiting Scotland with his family a year or so ago, we made the point of insisting that when he toured the UK he made it up here. He hasn't (I'm told this was because they couldn't make a date work), so there was nothing for it but a trip south.

So, after meeting up in a nearby pub, the Angelic (which has an interesting Tapas menu - Tapas fish and chips, who would have thought it?), with several of my cousins and my sister-in-law-elect (joke will be lost on all non Gilbert and Sullivan fans) who kindly let me use her spare bed, but alas not Finn, whose job kept him away, or my younger brother, who was sick, we headed in to the Carling Academy. An interesting venue, located as it is in the middle of a shopping centre. As we arrived the warm up act was still on stage, I have no note of who they were, and there doesn't seem to be on the venue website. They were not memorable though.

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At a little after 9pm Tom took to the stage and played what seemed to me to be a new song: Your Karma Hit My Dogma. At least, I've never heard it before (and it's on none of the many CDs I own), but then given the way he introduced a new song later on, I'm not certain. Then it was into The Flat Earth, Europa and the Pirate Twins and One of Our Submarines (the later a slightly different mix, without much by way of bass lines, this prompted by a computer issues at a previous gig and him having decided that he thought it worked rather well this way). One of the reasons it's interesting to hear Dolby live is that the songs sound rather different than they do on the studio album, the sounds and textures he's used the way he builds them up may be rather different. It's also fascinating to watch him put the tracks together.

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At this point the Hot Sauce Horns (a trumpet, trombone and sax) were brought onstage. Apparently, these were something of a last minute addition owing to visa problems with the musicians Thomas had intended to bring, though you wouldn't have guessed that to hear them play. They also integrated well to Dolby's electronic one-man rig and added a nice extra colour to the sound.

Someone (screen name heretic) on the forum on Dolby's website posted this playlist (which looks roughly correct, I wasn't keeping note):

Your Karma Hit My Dogma
The Flat Earth
Europa and the Pirate Twins
One of our Submarines

With the Horns:
What I Like Most About You Is Your Girlfriend (Cover of the Specials track)
The Key to Her Ferrari
May The Cube Be With You
My Brain is Like a Sieve
Jealous Thing Called Love? (new song)

Introduces Kevin and Matthew
I Scare Myself
She Blinded Me With Science

Thomas and the horns:
Hyperactive
Airhead

Introduces Lene Lovitch and Les Chappel
New Toy
Sway (duet with Lene)

Thomas and the Horns close with
Hot Sauce

Encore (just Thomas)
Airwaves


A look at the list shows a number of songs not there in the Sole Inhabitant tour. It was particularly nice to hear May the Cube Be With You, a favourite growing up, similarly Airhead. Sadly though, both here and on the Sole Inhabitant DVD the woman (presumably the eponymous airhead) saying "Oh, you speak French" in response to the line "Quad erat demonstrandum baby", which has, in my view, always been one of the funniest in the song, was absent.

The new song was rather hard to judge, I didn't quite catch all the words, and I think judgement is best reserved until it appears on the new album that Thomas is working on.

He was also joined on stage by a number of people whom he'd worked with some years back. All of them were unknown to me, but it added more colour and variety to the show. They were clearly all having fun together and that always makes for a better performance.

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If I had to make a criticism it's that after a few weeks on the road, both here and in the states, you can tell from the voice, but that's inherent to this sort of live concert tour. Another might be that it would have been nice to have heard some of the material from Astronauts and Heretics, in particular Close But No Cigar. However, now he's back in the UK for a while, we'll doubtless get the chance to hear him live again before too long.

All in all, a great evening's entertainment, and something I've wanted to hear for some years now. And even if you're not related, and the name Dolby means nothing more than surround sound processors to you, his blend or electronic sounds and intelligent lyrics is well worth investigation.

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