So, in the middle of last week I took a road trip to Greenville, SC to check out the Thomas Dolby concert there. I’d never seen Dolby, and after buying his 2007 “Sole Inhabitant Tour” CD/DVD, I definitely would not miss him for anything! His live versions on that album easily eclipsed most of their studio counterparts. As I mentioned recently, this tour gets its name from the Time Capsule, as seen above. It’s a vintage, half-height trailer-slash-interdimensional TV studio where one and all are encouraged to leave a 0:30 message for the future. Unlike his last tour in 2006, he was traveling with a band this time; Mat Hector on drums and longtime cohort Kevin Armstrong [ex-Thompson Twins, and Dolby’s own Low Noise side project] is on guitar.
The venue was The Handlebar, a club though familiar in name, I’d never been to before. In fact, this was the first time I crossed state lines for a gig in… South Carolina. Usually Atlanta gets the nod for a nearby road trip. I arrived in Greenville about 2:00 p.m. and had plenty of time to get up to record buying mischief before the 8:30 show, but by 6:00 I had given up on finding a good looking restaurant and fell back on the Handlebar’s own [quite serviceable] fare. I had tickets waiting at will call and ordered my meal in the cozy bar/dining area. More “theatrical” Dolby fans than I had already set up camp and were pontificating to their captive audience. After eating and snapping a few pics, I checked out the action at the Time Capsule while waiting for showtime.
The Handlebar runs a tight ship, and by 8:15 a line had begun snaking out of the door to the venue, so I joined the queue. By 8:30 the doors were open and the crowd began to flow into the concert hall, which was a large room that looked like it could hold 1000-1200 SRO. There were chairs on either side of the stage and an open floor in the middle; a good compromise. The stage was medium sized with a nice lighting rig. The floor was concrete, giving it all a bit of a high school gym vibe. There was a bar in the rear with the mixing desk adjacent to that.
Around 9:00 p.m. the opening act, Aaron Jonah Lewis and Ben Belcher, took to the stage for a brief set of acoustic music of the kind indigenous to the region. As someone who lives in Western North Carolina, I can get really sick of hearing music that would be at home on the sacred “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack. These guys were spared my ire by the fact that the fiddle player had a really sweet tone that made it go down easy and the fact that they had obviously read my book on this business called show. Chapter One of which, consists of the five simple words, “always leave them wanting more.” Twenty minutes later and they were making way for the headliner. Yes!
Scant minutes later, Dolby kicked off the night with “Commercial Breakup” from his debut album. It was an intriguing pick for a first song. It’s a less synth-heavy track from that album, but it has a pacing and urgency that lent itself well to the vibe you need to open a show with. I’ve never heard it performed live by him before. As one of the more guitar reliant cuts on “Wireless,” it gave guitarist Kevin Armstrong something to chew on right up front. The drummer had an acoustic kit augmented with a synth pad array. Dolby was stage left with two synths, a Mac Book Pro and an M-Audio sampler control interface. When no leads were necessary, Dolby could occasionally leave his rig and venture stage right for a bit of free flight for a few measures.
Next, he brought out one of the big guns with “One Of Our Submarines Is Missing,” one of the best B-sides you’ll ever hear and the last synth-heavy cut from his “classic period.” Technically, it’s the B-side to “She Blinded Me With Science,” but it’s been added to most versions [and there are many!] of the “Golden Age Of Wireless” album. Song selection was a great blend of adventurism and commerce, with most of his well known cuts played along with well-chosen album cuts and the occasional obscurity. A third of the set was taken from his new album, “Map Of A Floating City.” Anyone who has seen his “Sole Inhabitant” DVD knows that Dolby is a loquacious MC for the evening, often setting up songs with anecdotes and back stories.
One of the tracks from the “Amerikana” section of that album was the hybrid “Toad Lickers” track, which saw Dolby blending bluegrass and techno to amusing results. Dolby even revealed which Garage Band loop it was based on, but this escapes me now! This song had the fiddler from the opening set come back on stage to make it a four piece and it sounded even better than the album cut. Following “Toad Lickers,” Dolby played one of the “cajun tracks” from his previous album,”Astronauts + Heretics.” “I Love You Goodbye,” from 20 years ago showed he was already blending his take on pop with regional American styles. The fiddler filled in capably for Michael Doucet, who played on the album cut.
After next playing my second favorite Dolby cut, “Europa + The Pirate Twins,” Dolby rocked me to the core by next playing my very favorite song of his; “Field Work,” a non-LP single he wrote and performed with Ryuichi Sakamoto back in “nineteen eighty…mumble,” as Dolby himself put it. Wow! I hadn’t even hoped that this gem would ever surface, and yet, here it was! When he finished out the main set afterward, with his best selling trio of “cartoon funk” [re: “Airhead,” “Hyperactive” and “She Blinded Me With Science” – not my favorite of the Dolby canon] I was less bummed out than I would otherwise be. Far less, actually! “Field Work” goes a long way towards eradicating any ill will I bear towards those, those… novelty songs.
After a very brief break, the band returned for a two song encore beginning with the magnificent Bollywood synth classic-in-the-making “Spice Train” from his new album, and this was followed by the wonderful “Silk Pyjamas” from his 1992 “Astronauts + Heretics” album. The latter was a real favorite from that album and I was very pleased that he saw fit to add it to the night’s set. It was the track that had alerted me that Dolby had left attempts to mine another freak hit like “She Blinded Me With Science” by the wayside; finally!
Here’s the full setlist – encore in red:
- Commercial Breakup
- One Of Our Submarines Is Missing
- The Flat Earth
- Evil Twin Brother
- Love Is Like A Loaded Pistol
- My Brain Is Like A Sieve
- Road To Reno
- Toad Lickers
- I Love You, Goodbye
- Europa & The Pirate Twins
- She Blinded Me With Science
- Spice Train
- Silk Pyjamas
As you can see, it’s a good setlist for 2012 with five from the “Map” album, four from “Wireless” and a pair from the other three albums, with the wildcard being “Field Work,” not from any album. Dolby is making his first music in a twenty year layoff that’s seen him start software companies that make the polyphonic ringtones possible on your cell phone, so one hopes he’s had his coffers filled with that filthy lucre enough to really enjoy himself in his music career without feeling the need to pander to the charts for a hit single. Though I was amused by the geeky wit inherent in “She Blinded Me With Science” and wouldn’t begrudge him all the money and status that it brought to him in 1983, the fact remains that its freak hit status left him plowing a depressingly similar furrow for many years afterward with gimmicky funk tracks that were a far cry from the brilliant and dignified songs I first came to know him by a year or two earlier. I passed on his 1988 tour, the one other time he was ever in my area, but I’m glad I didn’t this go-round as he’s in a much better place to appreciate all that he has to offer. Here are the rest of his tour dates, so by all means drop the coin necessary to see him if he’s in your neck of the woods! You may never see “Field Work” live again.
The Time Capsule Tour 2012 | Remaining Shows
Sellersville, PA | Sellersville Theater
New York City, NY | Canal Room | SOLD OUT
Northampton, MA | Iron Horse | SOLD OUT
Ridgefield, CT | Ridgefield Playhouse
Montreal, QC | L’Astral
Toronto, ON | Mod Club
Detroit, MI | Royal Oak Music Theatre
Chicago, IL | Park West
Minneapolis, MN | Cedar Cultural Center
Portland, OR | Roseland Theater
Vancouver, BC | Rio Theatre
Seattle, WA | Showbox at the Market
San Francisco, CA | Red Devil Lounge | SOLD OUT
San Francisco, CA | Red Devil Lounge | 2nd late show
Sacramento, CA | Harlow’s
San Diego | Anthology
Los Angeles | Largo | Solo set | SOLD OUT
Los Angeles | Largo | 2nd late show
Brussels | AB Club
Amsterdam | Bitterzoet
Berlin | Frannz Club
Frankfurt | Zoom Club
Paris | Cafe De La Danse
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