The Scene: The scenery for Thomas Dolby’s performance at the Bluebird Theatre was appropriately bizarre last Thursday night. The eccentric UK Rock/Pop musician and producer was world famous in the 80s for songs like “She Blinded Me with Science” and “Hyperactive.” While you don’t hear Mr. Dolby’s music too often these days, he is still alive and kicking. Over the years, Dolby has had great success as a videographer–he makes peculiar films to accompany his music. His most recent film The Invisible Lighthouse is the focus of this fall’s tour. On Thursday, folding chairs were set up on the middle levels of the Bluebird, leaving the bottom “pit” open for dancing, and the upper tier was cleared for standing. The chairs were mostly filled (which was pretty awesome) and while many of the younger generations of our day have all but forgotten about Thomas Dolby, he still retains a small (but impressive) following in Denver. The crowd was certainly dominated by baby boomers, but there were fans of all shapes and sizes, young boys with their dads, grandmas with funky retro glasses, there was also a dude who looked remarkably akin to the comic book store character out of The Simpsons. It was an amusing crowd, to say the least.
Thomas Dolby: The shows on the “The Invisible Lighthouse” tour consist of three parts: a viewing of the movie, a Q&A session, and then a live performance. The Invisible Lighthouse is a documentary about dying technology and the region in England where Dolby grew up, the East Anglican coast. The screening is complemented by live sound augmentation provided by a professional foley. Lighthouses were something of a creature comfort for Dolby growing up and they now trigger nostalgia in him, just as many of us find comfort in the sound of a train passing. The particular lighthouse that is the subject of the film was being closed because it was falling into the sea. It was on land owned by the Ministry of Defense, and was not easy to film. Because of the red tape he encountered while trying to gain access to the island, he was forced to do much of the filming from a lifeboat, and because he was on a boat, the sound quality of the recording was not great, thus the live effects provided by the sound engineer. The presentation uniquely combines live performance and artistic video installation–it was thoughtful and intriguing.
The Q&A portion of the show was also interesting–questions about the film gave some explanation to it’s meaning. According to Dolby, the lighthouse is a “transitional technology” that “bridges the gap between celestial navigation and the smartphone.” Because of time and weather the structures are decaying, and because their technology is obsolete, they are not being rebuilt. In this way, the film is a metaphor for life’s only true constant: change. Fans also got to ask questions about the sound engineer’s many strange instruments, which included a baby coyote’s skull used somewhat like a flute, a metallic device that looked like a hubcap and is used to communicate with whales, and a giant wooden noisemaker called a wind-wand.
Then came the live performance. Sadly, it was right in line with the theme of “decaying technology.” The accompanying video production equipment had been on the fritz since the night before when he performed at The Dairy Center for the Arts in Boulder, so Dolby was forced to perform with the set-up you would expect to see from a teenage garage band. Just him, a keyboard, his sound sampling equipment, and some fairly pathetic lights. Sometimes his foley friend would join in. The performance and sound were good but not great. His voice is surprisingly intact, and he does a good job almost single-handedly rendering the music that was once delivered by an entire live band, but the technical problems definitely translated into the performance and his energy level.
Some might argue that he tried to compensate by offering more of the “crowd pleaser” songs–”One of Our Submarines,” ”Europa and the Pirate Twins,” and “Airhead” were included in the setlist. And, of course, he included the song that gave him fame–the dance floor below him filled when he performed “She Blinded Me with Science” and the crowd’s energy level peaked. For a moment everyone forgot about the lame stage production and gave into the nostalgia that brought them to the Bluebird in the first place–the memory of the fun New Wave era and all of it’s quirky glory. Unfortunately, the show came to an end with an encore performance of “Hyperactive!” that was anything but–as Dolby tried one last time in vain to get his visual production working and it did not. He gave a commendable effort, and he is an amazing musician, but this unfortunate end of the performance was indeed disappointing. At least fans can take comfort in knowing that it probably isn’t going to slow him down. After forty years, he still keeps coming back, and there must be something of value there, because so do the fans.
Stage Presence: B-
Set/Light Show: D