Yes, smart-ass, he’s still alive. And, no, funny guy, he didn’t just come out on stage, play “She Blinded Me with Science,” and say, “Thank you, goodnight!”
Thomas Dolby has never been particularly interested in his chart successes; he didn’t turn them down, you understand, but it wasn’t something he was actively seeking. When playing in Annapolis, MD, on the second night of his two-night stint at the Rams Head Tavern, he admitted that, “Frankly, I’m rather glad my fifteen minutes of fame is up; that way, I can get back to living comfortably in relative obscurity.”
Plus, he added with a smile, “instead of having to see me in a huge amphitheater, you people can see me here at the Rams Head.” The Rams Head Tavern only seats 250 people, all at small tables where food and beverages can be ordered, and it’s a spectacularly intimate place to catch a live performance.
Dolby’s opener, Carey Ott, may have seemed on the surface to be an odd choice, since he was an acoustic performer opening for a fellow who’s notorious for being all about the synthesizer and keyboards. Nonetheless, Ott and his guitarist / harmony vocalist, Satchel Welch, quickly swayed the crowd into their camp with a sound that crossed Keane with the Wallflowers. As soon as Ott left the stage, there was a rush to the merch booth to purchase his CD, so his is definitely a name to keep an eye out for.
Given the size and structure of the venue, there was no curtain to rise; Dolby emerged from a small door to the right of the stage, wearing a trench coat – clearly intended to invoke memories of the one he wore in the video for his aforementioned hit – and goggles, as well as sporting a decidedly shiny noggin. Dolby knew full well that he wasn’t dealing with a crowd who’d be shouting out demands for the obvious, so it was no surprise when those in attendance cheered for his choice to open the show with “Leipzig,” one of his earliest recorded efforts (and only available on his best-of collection, Retrospectacle). Behind him, a viewscreen provided various images, including the view from the camera in his goggles. Dolby later used this device to good effect, giving the crowd the opportunity to watch as he demonstrated the process he used to “build” songs on his keyboard set-up. It was particularly fascinating to hear a familiar song like “Hyperactive” emerge from the ground up. (He did the same for the intro of “The Flat Earth,” but admitted that he was “too chickenshit” to actually try and sing the entire song.)
The show was almost like witnessing the taping of an episode of “VH-1 Storytellers.” Between each song, Dolby chatted with the devout fans who’d come to witness this, his first proper U.S. tour in fifteen years. Sometimes, it was about the origins of a song (“Life in a Suitcase,” it seems, was written on Dolby’s first night as a resident of Los Angeles), but, as often as not, he spoke of what he’d been doing for all this time, since his last collection of traditional pop songs was 1992’s Astronauts and Heretics. (Turns out he was one of the developers of the polyphonic ringtone.) During these monologues, it became quickly obvious that Dolby wasn’t kidding when he made the “relative obscurity” comment. He’s quite glad to play to the converted, and, in turn, they ate it up as he played ‘80s synth classics like “One of Our Submarines,” “Windpower,” and “Flying North.”
The one-two-three punch of “Europa and the Pirate Twins,” the aforementioned “Hyperactive,” and the inevitable “She Blinded Me with Science” brought the proper set to a close, but after popping backstage momentarily, Dolby re-emerged, offering the dubious claim that “I’m out of material.” Fortunately, he conveniently recalled how to perform “Airhead” (one of two tracks from the underrated Aliens Ate My Buick that Dolby brought out of mothballs for the evening, the other being “Budapest By Blimp”), though he called it quits after that, strangely avoiding the perfect finale track, “I Love You Goodbye.”
Then again, it was already obvious that the love between Dolby and his audience was mutual; all he really needed to say was “goodbye.” One can only hope that, when he next plays ‘round, he has some new material to show off.