Monday, November 14, 2011

Thomas Dolby / Aaron Jonah Lewis @ Birmingham Academy, Sunday 13th November

There are beards and there are beards. Opening act tonight, Aaron Jonah Lewis has a BEARD. Big, bushy and possibly home to a family of travellers it’s the kind of beard that threatens to take over a room. If the music thing don’t work out this dude’s a shoe in for one of those Father Christmas jobs one day. Ignoring the beard for a moment, as if you could, wow...just wow...our Aaron’s a bundle of banjo and fiddle based loveliness, playing the sort of stuff that no doubt floored the crowds back in the 1900’s. Fast forward 100 years and it’s still a powerful force. There’s something magical about banjo and fiddles, don’t ask me what, perhaps it’s just that joyful hit of sound that makes you want to jig around like you’re auditioning for Riverdance? Clad in an incongruous red tracksuit (his musical partner had a matching light blue one...nice) Aaron and chum (Ed) fiddled and banjoed their way through a good half dozen (traditional?) tracks to the slight bemusement of some of the more synth based Dolby-ites. I loved it but I guess it’s a huge leap from the electro pleasures of Hyperactive to the 100% organic sounds of the Appalachian trail. This is a point we’ll be coming back to in a moment or two...

Excluding a brief tour in 2007 (I brain’s like a sieve too) Thomas Dolby’s pretty much been away from music for 20 years, busying himself with inventing polyphonic mobile phone ringtone software and, no doubt, making himself a squillionaire in the process. Given his techy background and origins as a synth pioneer some of tonight’s gig might have come as something of a surprise in places then. Whilst he’s not thrown out the digital baby with the electronic bathwater there’s more of a ‘natural’ feel to some of the music this evening, reflecting much of the rather fine new album, A Map Of The Floating City. The evening kicked off by almost going right back almost to the beginning though with a funky run through Commercial Breakup seeing Thomas grab the mic and come up to the front of the stage in full on lead singer style. The decent sized crowd gave it and him an enthusiastic welcome, befitting the return of a bloke that most of them might not have seen live for...oooh...the odd couple of decades or so.

Tonight was as much about the present as the past though and the second track of the night introduced some of the audience to a new addition to the Dolby songbook, Nothing New Under The Sun. Thomas was in particularly fine voice here (he looked pretty buff in his tight t-shirt too...I'm just saying y'know...)and the addition of more ‘live’ musicians added a little extra sparkle to the version on the new album. It was great to see a decent band around him this evening in fact, including long time collaborator Matthew Seligman on bass. Perhaps it’s not all as instantly addictive as hits like Hyperactive or She Blinded Me With Science (what could be eh?) but arguably it’s got more depth and, well, humanity, reflecting a road more travelled now and reinforcing Dolby’s reputation for songwriting that dates back to more thought provoking stuff like One Of Our Submarines, given a particularly poignant airing tonight (today was Rememberance Sunday after all) and beefed up nicely with a little extra live bass. Next another newbie, A Jealous Thing Called Love and here it’s time to pause for a mo to mull over the synth vs live instrument debate. This track’s got a lush Herb Alpert kinda feel (you know, that gently parping trumpet sound) tonight played on a synth (like it is on the record I guess). It works but, given the ‘feel’ of the track, the muso in me couldn’t help yearning for a live trumpet. Of course humping around a band ain’t cheap and I guess that’s part of the issue but it would be interesting to see a...dare I say it...synth free Dolby show, or at least a section of the show that dispensed with the electronic wizardry for the tracks that really suit it, like this one. It's an observation rather than a grumble but, from time to time, especially when Aaron returned to the stage to do his thang, that slight clash between the two worlds was there.

On top of the music the set was liberally scattered with charming little anecdotes about lost lovers, turkey hot dogs, Welsh eco hippies and mad scientists in between a pleasing mix of old and new songs that had plenty to please the faithful die-hard Dolby fans, My Brain Is Like A Sieve, I Scare Myself, Europa and The Pirate Twins, I Love You Goodbye and, of course, Hyperactive and She Blinded Me With Science...surely two of the most joyful hits of the original synthpop era? Several of the new songs are already starting to take hold now too though with Toadlicker, admittedly an odd proposition...Dolby does Bluegrass...and encore opener, the mariachi/techno mashup of Spice Trail both deservedly going down a storm. As bed was beckoning the set ended, appropriately enough with Silk Pyjamas from 1992...Dolby goes Zydeco (he’s got form when it comes to this genre hopping business). It’s blinking great to have him back, as a songwriter and performer, and with a Map Of The Floating City having clearly got his creative juices flowing again let’s hope it’s not another 20 years before his next release eh?

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