Concert Report: Thomas Dolby in New York City
Electronica pioneer Thomas Dolby has experienced a great degree of success in recent years by retaining and continuing to stimulate his fanbase -- the so called "Flat Earth Society" -- with new music released first to them in a series of free downloads, before compiling most of the material into his latest commercial offering, "A Map of the Floating City."
At the same time he has cleverly cultivated a whole new audience of primarily younger or new generation fans through the introduction of an online game that was a companion to the album of the same name. This ambitious and expansive role playing game was made available free to the public, and hooked thousands of participants into building a whole story world as they formed or joined an already established dystopian tribe while exposing them to both new and vintage Dolby material.
Now, Dolby has unveiled his latest cross-platform initiative, a film entitled "The Invisible Lighthouse," which was inspired partly after he accessed a "Doomsday List" of endangered lighthouses currently numbering 46 monuments that are threatened by erosion or lack of upkeep.
Having been powerless to prevent the closure of a much-loved lighthouse near his own home, Dolby has set out to alert the U.S public to the fact that many of these venerable landmarks are close to extinction by touring the film to cities across the country through Nov. 23.
The seventh stop on this tour hit New York's Gramercy Theatre on Oct. 28. But this is no ordinary movie premiere, because Dolby creates the soundtrack and narrative live along with renowned sound effects artist Blake Leyh.
The roughly 50-minute film documents the closing earlier this year of the Orford Ness lighthouse, visible from Dolby's home studio in East Anglia, and the lack of cooperation he received from the authorities in his efforts to draw attention to its plight.
It also weaves in real or imagined memories from Dolby's childhood, as the beam of the lighthouse permeated his bedroom, and the towering structure served as a visual point of reference to his youthful meanderings by day. The presentation is extremely effective because it provides the first-person perspective of the film maker in a live environment, immediately enhancing the excitement, discouragement, anticipation and other emotions Dolby inevitably re-experiences during each performance.
Besides his narrative, the film utilizes alternate versions or clips from newer Dolby tracks including "To The Lifeboats," "Oceanea," and "Love Is a Loaded Pistol," and his classic, "Wind Power."
The New York stop also featured a Q&A segment with the audience, as well as a guest appearance from musician and comedian Reggie Watts. Besides engaging in some witty banter, Watts was pressed into demonstrating some of his expertise at mimicry by vocally showcasing a trip through the BBC radio dial with various voice impressions and musical interludes.
Watts also gave, upon request, a demonstration of his impromptu songwriting talent by using a looping device and his voice to create an entire song for Dolby, Leyh and the mesmerized audience.
Dolby then closed the show with a mini concert of full-length songs including "Evil Twin Brother," "One of Our Submarines Is Missing" from his debut album, and of course his biggest hit, "She Blinded Me With Science."
The evening was not without its surprises, however, as the digital system projecting the film froze up a few minutes before the end of the film presentation. This caused Dolby to have to dig into technical damage control while pressing Leyh to amuse the audience with an unplanned lecture about his rack of manual sound effects equipment he employed as part of the audio underpinnings of the film.
During a pre-event interview, Dolby said a number of lighthouse preservation societies across the U.S. are pleased that such a mainstream artist has taken up their cause.
"There is a trend toward decommissioning lighthouses in general. They don't serve very much of a purpose anymore from a navigation perspective," Dolby said. "Your smart phone probably has better navigation tools than lighthouses can provide."
The artist admitted that the film did not start out as a means of advocating for global lighthouse preservation.
"I didn't know what the eventual fate of my Orford lighthouse was going to be," he said. "I wanted the film to cover the story of that lighthouse closing. But I got so little cooperation from the (government agencies involved) that it led me to make a clandestine commando raid on the island with cameras rolling, which became the climax of the film."
"The Invisible Lighthouse Tour" continues hitting Gloucester, MA (Nov. 1), Denver (Nov. 14), Seattle (Nov. 18), Los Angeles (Nov. 22), and more than a dozen other cities coast-to-coast, many of which -- even inland cities with rivers -- possess surviving lighthouses in town or nearby.