November 26, 2013 8:00am PT by Chris Willman
Thomas Dolby Gets Personal In 'Lighthouse' Ode
As arguably the most innately talented figure to emerge during the synth-pop explosion of the mid-‘80s, Thomas Dolby was ahead of his time in plenty of technological regards. So the news that he was centering a tour around a film he’s made, The Invisible Lighthouse, suggested that he might be planning to blind us with multi-media science. But, light rigs and sophisticated keyboard triggers aside, the show he brought to the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery for two shows on Friday night was just a little bit closer to a guy nostalgically narrating his home movies than a dazzling immersion in futuristic tech. To his credit, Dolby used the experimental format to blind us with his most personal, and personable, side.
The 40-minute film that kicked off the show was narrated mostly by an in-the-flesh Dolby, although occasionally he spoke up on-screen, too, with tantalizing snippets of existing songs dropped in as the singer spoke about the upbringing that inspired tunes like “Europa and the Pirate Twins.” The title of his movie is no metaphor; Dolby really is a lighthouse freak, and the film exists largely to commemorate the passing of the one that literally and figuratively illuminated his English childhood. It was recently switched off because the coast in his Suffolk homeland is eroding and the tall structure is in danger of tumbling into the sea (along with the off-limits, supposedly ordinance-filled military testing ground that surrounds it).
Global warming got a token mention as one likely reason the tides are swallowing up the marshy areas around his once-and-present home, but Dolby didn’t spend too much time making “The Invisible Lighthouse” an environmental tract. He’s more interested in the constructs of memory -- trying to decide what he remembered about that revolving beam and his childhood in general was true, and to figure out how to keep the legend of the lighthouse alive after its (and maybe his) passing. He even manages to find some sad suspense as he captures the tower’s final burst of light from afar on his iPhone.
Dolby is the very model of an articulate British raconteur, so for those of us who might be Anglophiles of a certain old-fashioned order, it’d be enjoyable just to hear him intone the Suffolk phone book, although hearing him talk his way through the scripted equivalent of a VH1 Storytellers episode was particularly pleasing to the ear and spirit. And he is not so precious about his film’s nostalgia-laden concept that he can’t devote a “[bleep] art, let’s dance” moment in the running time, escaping from his despondency over the dying lighthouse to include the EDM-style dance music of “Spice Train” near the end.
After the film, Dolby did a joint Q&A with his one accompanist, Blake Leyh, who’s been a sound designer on film from The Abyss to Black Nativity and music supervisor for Treme. Leyh’s main role during the film was to provide percussion and some amusingly visible foley effects like footsteps. The show ended with a round of Dolby’s greatest ‘80s hits, to which Leyh was enlisted to add rhythm guitar, an instrument that he warned the audience he’d only taken up five weeks ago, at the singer’s behest. Leyh’s funk licks on the finale of “Hyperactive” were confident enough to prove that he’s a quick study.
Dolby’s one-and-a-half-man-show version of “She Blinded Me With Science” was what got the Masonic Lodge crowd on its feet, of course, though the introductory anecdote about how he enlisted astronaut Buzz Aldrin to do the speaking parts at a recent Smithsonian appearance was an arguably bigger highlight. The too-short show would have been even better served if Dolby had managed to toss in a tune from his latest album, 2011’s under-heard A Map of the Floating City. But fans weren’t about to complain about getting a full-on ‘80s set as a reward for coming to see his 2013 memories of a lonely British coastal life in the 1960s. Wistful and “Hyperactive” are a good combination in a multi-media show, if you can get ‘em.