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Essay:Who Knew Solar Satellites Could Rock So Hard?

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(Originally posted on the Steve.FM blog)

Last night, one of my all-time musical heroes, Thomas Dolby played here in Seattle (at the Fenix Underground). How was the show? Well, in a word -- amazing.

Dolby was the only performer on stage during his set (aside from a couple techs to take care of the video aspect) -- which isn't too terribly unusual, except that nothing was canned. Most folks would just play with a laptop now, doing the basic backing tracks while they play the lead instrument and sing, and back in the day, it was the same thing, only with a reel-to-reel. (There's an amusing story of one early They Might Be Giants show where a reel unspooled and their manager had to go into the audience and collect the meters of tape while the Johns sort of screwed around dumbfounded.)

This might be good enough for most people.... but NOT Thomas Dolby. For every song, he built them live! He first laid down the drum tracks and looped it, then did his bass riffs, looped that, any other riffs that needed to be looped (keep in mind, this is all in time to where they'd come in on the song as well), and then when that was done, he'd play the lead and sing.

As if that weren't enough, he had a special headset on -- headphones for monitors, a microphone and vocoder included, and, best of all, a small video camera attached to the side of his head, so we could see what he saw. He used this to great effect -- showing us how he built a couple of songs from the ground up. (If you're curious, they were "The Flat Earth", which, sadly, he didn't sing, and "Hyperactive!" which he did sing, and I didn't realize was so complex with the various layers of bass and drums going on.)

Perhaps the best thing about Thomas Dolby is his incredbily infectious enthusiasm about, well, everything. He genuinely is interested in everything and wants to share it with the world -- not to make him feel like the Holder Of All Knowledge (though he basically IS -- dude owned the company and helped develop the software that allows polyphonic ringtones, man), but because -- and this is the part that I just dig -- this stuff is NEAT. His army of really cool synth toys (his word!) are COOL. They're really interesting, but more over, they're just NEAT. The solar satellites that send information back to Earth about the gases being emitted from the sun? That's NEAT -- and it's EVEN COOLER that it sends it back in a 3-D image! How cool is that?! We're finding out about stuff that's 93 million miles away, and not only that, but it comes in a cool, green 3-D cartoon! That's so neat that Thomas Dolby took that data and converted them into sounds on his synthesizer... which he used in that night's version of "Windpower". How cool is that?

The other great thing is that Dolby seemed genuinely taken aback by the overwhelming positive response by the crowd, who knew all the songs and wanted as much as he could give us. The encore was great -- he said he didn't actually have any other songs worked out, but he'd play around... and out of the "Hyperactive!" sample-set, he built "Airhead", and I'm pretty sure he wasn't kidding when he said he was just fooling around and didn't have anything like that planned.

It's always great to see a show where the performer's doing it because they WANT to, not because they HAVE to. Thomas Dolby didn't HAVE to go out on tour -- he doesn't need the money, he doesn't have a new record out, nothing. He just WANTED to because he enjoys performing. And that really comes across -- he was having fun, playing his music in new arrangements, sharing information with the crowd, and just coming off as a genuinely personably, brilliant, fun, nice guy. He strikes me as just the kind of person it'd be great to know -- just sit and talk with him. He's got that infectious curiosity and brilliance that just makes him a joy to listen to and it's easy to come away knowing exactly what he's talking about, no matter how big it is, be it audio software, new synthesizers, or orbiting balls of machinery in close proximity to the sun. (I suppose I could invoke Richard Feynman here, since he seemed to have a similar skill set when it came to being excited about science and knowledge and sharing it with everyone just for the sake of "Hey, lookit this cool thing! Isn't it cool?!")

If you're not in Seattle, and if Thomas Dolby is coming to your town -- you MUST go.

If you're in Seattle and you missed this, the next time he comes around -- you have no excuse. In fact, I would recommend perhaps looking at the tourdates and seeing if there's another show you can make it to. Even if you have to fly somewhere.

It's worth it.

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