Thomas Dolby at the Rio Theatre, Vancouver

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Thomas Dolby live

Thomas Dolby

Thomas Dolby performed his film, The Invisible Lighthouse at the Rio Theatre in Vancouver on Nov. 17. Rockzombies contributors Alfred Hermida and Kirk LaPointe went to the show and were pleasantly surprised.

AH: I was intrigued by the billing of the show as Thomas Dolby’s The Invisible Lighthouse live. This was not going to be an eighties star squeezing a little more life from his hits by going on the road. It turned out to be more like an evening with Thomas Dolby, exploring the fusion of sound and vision, an interlude to learn more from an Oscar-winning film and sound editor, and then just a sprinkling of hits to round the night off.

KL: I’ve been thinking about the show a lot since we saw it, and typically I don’t reflect long on them. What struck me immediately was how he was making full use of his abilities and his history in technology and sound expertise. I’d suspect other musicians have similar visual and aural capacities, and a good gift of gab, but they don’t take advantage of it. I have to say I’d be prepared for many more of these.

AH: I was surprised by the film, The Invisible Lighthouse. I am naturally suspicious when musicians take on art projects to make a big statement. But Dolby drew on his past to reveal a little of his childhood and explore his relationship with his home town and the landscape of East Anglia. It all came together into a journey of promise and loss.

KL: I was particularly taken with his perspective on memory and how we can firmly believe in something (in this case, a fire) that never happened. What was also fun about the movie were the sound effects his partner, Blake Leyh, played to emulate walking and wind and birds. It felt like I was watching a radio show on the one hand and an old-cinema musical score on the other.

AH: The live sound effects gave the images on screen an added dimension. It was as if the moving pictures came off the screen to be in 3D on stage. It transformed the film into a very different experience from the usual art house screening. It is remarkable how the use of live sound changes the experience of viewing a movie.

Conversation with Walter Murch
In conversation with Walter Murch

KL: I will admit, though, to some embarrassment when the lights came up for the conversation with Walter Murch. It’s pretty unconscionable that a show like this couldn’t fill a movie theatre like the Rio’s with film students, music aficionados, and nostalgics. Murch had tremendous stories from The Godfather, its sequel, The Conversation, and others. It meant, also, that the actual music in the show was limited to a handful of songs, which really was about right in the mix.

AH: To be fair, unless you follow Dolby on Twitter, you’d have no idea that a film pro of the calibre of Walter Murch was going to be part of the show. It was an unexpected treat. And it worked as part of the evening, as the conversation picked up on the intersection of sound and vision that Dolby combined in The Invisible Lighthouse. Isn’t it odd that the hits took a back seat during the show?

KL: On the music itself, I looked it up later: Blinded Me WIth Science wasn’t a huge chart hit (never higher than #5 on the BIllboard Chart), but it was a huge video hit (as were many of Dolby’s creative videos). I think he was part of a cohort that shifted music into the music video era, where a vast amount of the popularity came from what we saw and not just from what we heard. I still recall that video with the great Magnus Pyke.

AH: Blinded Me With Science is the poster child for the MTV hits of the eighties. Great video, novelty vocals from Magnus Pyke yelling “Science,” and a catchy hook. The song did make it to number one in Canada for some reason. Dolby was smart to tell the back story to the involvement of Pyke in the song, instead of just playing it. It fitted in with the conversational and informal tone of the evening.

KL: Canada has a contribution to that MTV poster-child set: Corey Hart’s Sunglasses At Night. We are trying to forget that episode. I am always fascinated by how many of the stars of that era, like Dolby, still have quite strong voices. He’s in his late 50s now, and like a lot of other performers from that time, seems somehow to have strengthened his voice and made it quite resilient.

AH: He came across as comfortable with where he is at as an artist. He realises that fans want to hear the hits, even if they are 30 years old. But he is also looking to explore new territory through The Invisible Lighthouse, and combine it all into a memorable stage show.

KL: Yes, I guess that’s why I liked the evening so much. He came across to me as a sort of wise elder, with pretty well all of the understanding of how sound is generated, edited and combined, with an effective visual sense, and with an interest in what others, like Murch, have to say about the craft. I felt like I was attending a good master class.

AH: He managed to play off his eighties image of the musical science egghead, who played with keyboards to such an extent as a kid that he was nicknamed Dolby by friends. It didn’t matter that he ran into technical hitches with the programming for Hyperactive. It also helped that Blake Leyh stepped in to give a tour of his sound effects toys.

KL: Yes, he lost a little patience with the projectionist, too, but it was momentary. We talked after the show about how the songs felt very old in many ways because they were ostensibly built with synth. But one song really worked for me: One Of Our Submarines would, I think, still feel contemporary if released today. Maybe it was the slightly spartan arrangement that night, but it sounded pretty vital, still.

AH: It was a song that sounded better stripped of the electronic trappings of the eighties. The sound of stabbing synths and electronic drums are so baked into the new wave pop of the time.  That said, I still enjoyed Blinded and Hyperactive, if only for nostalgia’s sake.

KL: Hey, I think we all sound better stripped of the trapping of the eighties. Nostalgia is good for all of us, within reason.

Indulge in some nostalgia with the video for She Blinded Me With Science

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