Thomas Dolby at Cedar Cultural Center, 4/6/12

Thomas Dolby
Cedar Cultural Center, Minneapolis
Friday, April 6, 2012

View a slideshow from the concert here.

Sample-triggering master Thomas Dolby was full of stories Friday evening at the Cedar. The one worth latching onto, though, didn't paint him in a particularly favorable light. He recalled a show he played at First Avenue sometime back in the mid-'80s, and referred to a certain purple figure who appeared at a balcony, stayed for two songs, and then vanished again behind a curtain. Based upon the evening's spotty flow, it's easy to see how Prince got his fill of Dolby's schtick pretty quickly.

Sure, a good portion of the audience assembled at the Cedar Cultural Center were tittering along as the fedora-donning 53-year-old new wave pioneer told lengthy tales between songs about his process, the lifeboat where he records, and his academic pedigree -- a bit like sitting in J. Peterman's office during a rambling, indulgent yarn. Those hoping for a night of vintage synthesizers and danceable pop would have to wait.

What many casual Dolby fans who own The Golden Age of Wireless and little else might not realize is that a healthy portion of his career explores the gamut of popular (and unpopular) music. He is just as much a jazz crooner, a bayou stomper, and an Americana leaner as he is a keyboard-tweaking artist. Unfortunately, these efforts come off far less interesting than the stuff that gave him that one true hit, "She Blinded Me With Science."

Dolby tried to dress up the set with his tales, he brought out his admittedly charming teenaged son to play drums a couple of times, and he even enlisted bearded opener Aaron Jonah Lewis for some added banjo and fiddle punch for a song called "Toad Lickers." Ultimately, the song that he billed as one of the most inventive combinations of techno and Appalachian sounds (and he played each sample individually beforehand so we'd be sure to understand its complexity) turned out to sound not much different than a Brad Paisley song, but not nearly as clever. 

There's no question that Thomas Dolby is a talented musician and songwriter, but his hubris keeps these qualities from connecting with an audience. And, it allows for songs like "Love Is a Loaded Pistol," a pretentious ode based upon Billie Holiday song titles that came to him in a dream. This sentimental, smug piece was one of many in the set that seemed to have utter contempt for the people listening, and felt completely self-serving.

When we finally got to the moment of new wave bliss that a good portion of the audience in this reviewer's section wanted so desparately, it was story time again. A magician should never reveal his tricks, but Dolby went on to explain in exhausting detail about the exclamations British scientist Magnus Pyke unloaded to give the song its trademark "Science!" moments. It certainly lifted a good bit of the "She Blinded Me With Science" mystique to hear it deconstructed right before he played it. But by this point, it was clear that the audience was a secondary concern.

Critic's Notebook

The crowd: Polite, multi-generational, and plenty who play Dolby's interactive video game A Map of the Floating City. Amusingly, there was also a guy who seemed extremely drunk who guffawed loudly at every opportunity.

Overheard: "Oh my god! Oh my God!" from someone nearby when there was a hint of the old-school synthesizer playing. 

Random Detail: Dolby brought out three local belly dancers to tantalize the crowd during the encore of "Spice Train." Too little, too late.

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