"Live Nation presents Thomas Dolby (Sputnik & Beyond), plus special guests The Radio Science Orchestra" - so ran the promotional blurb. This was a special performance by Mr. Dolby to mark the 50th anniversary of the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik. It was followed by Dolby's regular show as previously experienced (by your author) as part of last year's O2 festival in Hyde Park. That event last summer was my first experience of Dolby live and it made such an impression on me that I vowed to ensure I caught up with him the next time he played live in the UK. So this was me fulfilling that promise to myself.
The launch of Sputnik was an historical event which initially triggered awe and wonderment around the globe. However, this was rapidly followed by Cold War paranoia and nuclear panic - largely in the USA. Seeking to capture this wave of excitement and then fear, Dolby with Bruce Woolley, and his Radio Science Orchestra, has composed a piece of electronic music that's part soundtrack, part opera, part theatre. Presented like a live 1950s radio broadcast, complete with bow-tied, mustached, and hair slicked announcer, Dolby has used an edited version of David Hoffman's documentary film The Fever of '57.
Between them they have composed a complex and brooding score that manages to convey the fear and paranoia like few other documentaries. Dolby's fondness for jazz is also reflected in the soundtrack at times and helps create the period feel of the entire piece. Importantly, it never makes the mistake of taking itself too seriously. At one point the marching theme from Thunderbirds is worked in, accompanied by sax, trombone and Theremin. Special mention must go to the player of the latter (clearly not Bruce Woolley as tonight's performer was a woman). The Theremin was a central thread of the score and it is impossible to imagine Sputnik & Beyond without it. The playing was the finest I've ever heard. Disproving claims of it being an instrument of limited expression, the subtle playing here proved its worth as an instrument capable of conveying a broad range of genuine emotion.
Such is the diverse pull of Dolby that both BBC Creative Director Alan Yentob and Andrew Slegt of Kinetik were both in attendance tonight. It's possible that Yentob was around for one of the other art exhibitions at the ICA, but Sputnik & Beyond would be perfect programming for BBC4. Fingers crossed that it gets picked up by the BBC. With all the debate currently raging about what the public service broadcaster should and should not be focusing on, I can't think of many better ways to spent the licence fee payers' money.
In the second part of the evening, Thomas Dolby performed his more regular show in which he loops and layers sounds in real time, building them into evocative, poignant electronic songs. Although not exactly the Sole Inhabitant set he has been touring with in recent times (and which was the basis for the O2 show last year), this did feature many of the key core songs taken from his career. Dolby always manages to generate a lighthearted mood at his shows, on the face of it at odds with his scientific boffin approach to composition, but there's always been a playful, even whimsical character to his music and that was very much in evidence tonight.
No sooner had he walked on stage than someone shouted out "Science!" - a reference to his landmark 80s hit She Blinded Me With Science (featuring real scientist Magnus Pike). The song was notably absent from the O2 set last year - I thought perhaps because Dolby simply found it now a musical millstone around his creative neck. The same member of the audience shouted it again a couple of songs into the set. "If you say that again," joked Dolby, "I'll eject you from the building!". I took that to mean, once again, we wouldn't be hearing it. Among other classics, we did get to hear Flat Earth and Hyperactive, both of which Dolby built up from scratch using samples, loops and sequencers demonstrating just how clever and skilled live electronic music can be.
Dolby has always had a reputation as being somewhat hit and miss for those beyond his hardcore audience and tonight was unfortunately an example of this. New song Your Karma Hit My Dogma, although based upon a fascinating true story involving former Mr. Britney Spears, K-Fed illegally sampling Science on one of his tracks and subsequent spats on MySpace and letters from lawyers, is more self-indulgent home studio tomfoolery than a composition worthy of professional release. His other forays into unexpected (and frankly less rewarding) territory included a cover of the Jerry Dammers song (What I Like Most About You Is Your) Girlfriend; something about having "the keys to your Ferrari" (more like a jam session ditty than a song) and someone's brain being "like a sieve"; several of which were accompanied by a three-piece brass section, who had only agreed to the gig a couple of days beforehand after Dolby's original musicians were refused entry into the UK by immigration officials. The trombone, trumpet and sax did feature on a late appearance of She Blinded Me With Science which came as something of a welcome surprise given the earlier exchange. The bizarre highlight of the excursions, and closing song of the setlist, was a truly surreal take of mambo number Sway (you know, the one that begins: "When marimba rhythms start to play, Dance with me, make me sway") which saw Dolby get as close to camp as we're ever likely to see! (Apparently, he first did it at a friend's wedding after promising to take requests from the guests, and now its something of a party piece.). It may not always pay off or be cool, but a Thomas Dolby gig is undeniably original. 6/10