Thomas Dolby returns to his roots at Rio Theatre
//JJ Brewis

For someone who hasn't released a new album in nearly two decades, and best known for a weird hit from 30 years ago (1982's "She Blinded Me With Science"), Thomas Dolby has no problem charming his way through a full set. 

The London electronic pioneer has a full body of work behind him, working both his '80s revival niche as well as promoting his upcoming release "A Map of the Floating City". Though he hadn't been to town in several decades, Dolby was met with large fanfare and a legion of fans proving they were waiting for what was only a matter of time. Absence has served Dolby well, and his resurgence is a fitting one, given that his early work helped open the floodgates for what is now a full-blown genre in its own right. Though Dolby may have been an outsider when his massive 1982 hit "She Blinded Me With Science" took the airwaves by storm, the blips and bleeps lacing his records are now a commonplace mainstay for radio singles and indie markets alike. 

Dolby, above his work as a machinist and tinkerer, is a storyteller, something he admits freely. His songs, part diary and part fiction, are melded pieces of half-truths in which the listener submerges and makes up their own mind about where the borders of fact and fiction may be defined. That's where the electronics come in. Dolby still croons with a flowing glow, which perfectly juxtaposes the synthesizers and keyboards he stations himself for most of his set. The chemistry seems to work, guiding his story songs along in a set that feels like a sort of science-fiction book of short stories. 

On "The Flat Earth", Dolby samples the voice of the late Martin Luther King, Jr. saying "I still have a dream", yet Dolby himself seems just as poignant in his lyric, professing "The earth can be any shape you want it." The jangly tune of this song, in which Dolby builds an entire sound orchestra before singing, is a precursor to later tunes in the set and Dolby's career, which verge into world music and fusions.

Backed by only a guitar and a drummer, Dolby does most of the heavy lifting, constantly fluctuating between charming vocalist and serious button-presser, proving to his already-sold audience that he's still got more than a few tricks up his sleeve. Each song is preceded by a story of its own, such as new single "My Evil Twin Brother" in which he relays the story of being jet-lagged in New York City at 3 a.m., getting into a plethora of sticky situations. Between the heavy cocktail concoctions and the mistress taking him to the dance floor, Dolby perfectly bemuses his audience in what must likely be another of his storytelling tangents. 

Dolby's career has been an interesting one, if his tales are any account of it. Before playing a true-to-the-record version of his hit "Hyperactive!", Dolby told a story of how the studio he'd worked in was next to the one Michael Jackson was working in on "Billie Jean", and how the encounter led to Dolby giving Jackson the track to work on. Michael may have turned Thomas down on using the song, but it became a massive UK hit for Dolby in his heyday. 

For someone so steeped in electronics, Thomas Dolby has no trouble paying homage to other genres, such as during "Love Is a Loaded Pistol", a song which has lyrics almost entirely pieced together of old Billie Hollidays. During this rare moment, Dolby's keyboard is stripped down on pure Grand Piano mode, plunking away as a tribute to the jazz great. The great thing about Thomas Dolby live is that the set is so versatile which constantly keeps it refreshing.  On two tracks, Dolby's teenage son Graham sat in on drums. For the latter half of the set, a guitarist/violinist sat in, adding an extra juiciness to the tunes. 

As enchanting as some of Dolby's new work may be ("Toad Licker" for example, with its Imogen Heap joyharp sampling, keeps Dolby current), it was the rear end of the set, where Dolby stashed his '80s gems that kept the crowd screaming for more. On "Europa" and "Airhead", the storyteller and the electro-king merge as one where Dolby shines completely. But it was the closer "She Blinded Me With Science", that proves the power of a hit is an undeniable thing. Yes, there is a lot more to the man and the performer than the one track that still plays in '80s "One Hit Wonder" compilations. Although it may have been the only track that put Dolby on the pop music canon, it was also the reason we were all still there that night.

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