In this corner Howard Jones, the mainstream prince of electronic piano pop and the man behind the mega hits “What Is Love?’, “Things Can Only Get Better” and “Everlasting Love” scheduled to play the historical Music Box theater in Hollywood. And in this corner Thomas Dolby, the experimental mad scientist who brought us “She Blinded Me With Science”, “Hyperactive” and “Europa And The Pirate Twins” ready to rock the mausoleum (seriously) at Hollywood Forever Cemetery.
It’s the ultimate battle of the 1980’s keyboard kings. Who will win?
(Okay, truth be told, both shows had an 8pm start time and there is no way to be in two places at once. Luckily Dolby was playing a second show a few nights later with the exact same set up at the Grammy Museum in Downtown, Los Angeles.)
Let the battle of the concert reviews begin!
Howard Jones at the Music Box in Hollywood
Playing “Human’s Lib” and “Dream Into Action.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d seen Jones. Back in 1986 on a snowy night in Worcester, Massachusetts I was a fan of the man and his light pop. But sadly, in recent years his concerts have left me cold. Gone were the band, elaborate sets and dancing midget (we called them that in the 80s. Now the proper term is “little person”.), replaced by Jones and a fat sidekick with a collection of laptops. So I was excited about the prospect of this evening though because it promised “A Full Band.”
Twenty minutes before showtime the Music Box, which is normally packed to the gills for 80s shows is only half full. When I was here last time for OMD it was standing room only, and the time before DEVO’s fire marshal had to turn people away. But tonight there is plenty of room to move, or dance. I wondered if maybe having two “Reagan Years” musical icons playing on the same night, splitting the potential audience, may have been a mistake.
As the lights dimmed and a thin, and fashionably dressed Jones entered in the classic “Miami Vice” combo of jeans, suit jacket and T-shirt my hopes sank. There was no band! Just Jones, aforementioned “fat man” and a third player surrounded by a collection of laptops and a cymbal.
As most retro artists are doing these days, Jones is playing his most popular albums back to back, starting the evening with his debut “Human’s Lib.” But instead of playing the album in its original order, he saved all of the albums’ hit singles till the end.
While his trademark soaring falsetto remained intact as he played through “Pearl In The Shell” and “Don’t Always Look At The Rain” his stage performance lacked a sense of excitement. He carried himself with an air of indifference and boredom, even while playing the high energy hits “New Song” and “What Is Love?”, though most of the poorly aged hipsters (Seriously this is LA. Where are the beautiful people?) didn’t seem to notice or care. Maybe it was the booze? Most people in the crowd were clutching several cups of beer and wine as they sang along to every note.
At the end of Human’s Lib, Jones then exited the stage for what he said would be “a fifteen-minute intermission” and costume change. Forty-five minutes later (guess it was the time difference between America and England) he reappeared in a red leather jacket (a la Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”) and took to playing his second album “Dream Into Action,” again saving the singles till the end. While the highlight of this set was the heartfelt ballad “No One Is To Blame” which Jones attacked with a burst of passion missing from the rest of the night, as he launched into “Things Can Only Get Better” and hit the memorable line “And do you feel scared?” I realized I didn’t feel scared, I felt exhausted. With the extended intermission, we had been there for over three hours. Do I believe there was too much of a good thing? I do.
“An Evening With Thomas Dolby”: at Grammy Museum, Los Angeles.
I love Thomas Dolby because he’s always made interesting and dynamic music. The highlights in his career are not the well-known MTV hits, but rather the album tracks that fell in between. During my time in the record business, my first ever duty was to plan Thomas Dolby’s Boston press conference for his third album 1989’s “Aliens Ate My Buick.”
Normally, an event billed as “An Evening With..” means a long night of music spanning the featured artist’s entire career. Nope. This just meant we were spending time with Thomas Dolby, meaning it felt like we were hanging out with him.
The first hour of the “Show” featured Dolby in conversation with The Grammy Museums General Manager, a slightly confused older gent who looked like Burt Bacharach and told us we should come back to see the “Great Country Artist” Colbie Caillat (She’s not country). This made this event into more of a TED Talk (Dolby’s yearly gathering of great technological minds) than a concert. It was an interesting peek into the unraveling of Dolby’s creative process. If you’re into that sort of thing.
But I came to rock!
Finally the quirky musical genius set himself to the task of making music. He moved to a desk cover with a single keyboard, drum pad and two laptops and launched in “An old one.” That was “Europa & The Pirate Twins.” Nice start. He then dove into several tracks from his brilliant new concept CD “Map Of A Floating City.” You heard right, in a time in a time of disposable singles and music best suited for ring tones Dolby has decided to release a deeply complex and creative concept album based on his online video game community Floatingcity.com. A risky move considering the fact that he hasn’t released a proper pop Album in over two decades combined with the fact that your average music fan has an ever-shrinking attention span. But tracks like “Love Is like A Loaded Pistol” and the pitch-perfect “Evil Twin Brother” (featuring Regina Spector) are a welcome return. Then Dolby kicked into the ultra-funky “Spice Train” combining female Indian vocals with groovy bass. The annoying part though, was that between every song Dolby felt the need to go into elaborate detail about the website, video game and creation of the music, sometimes talking for ten minutes plus before getting around to another tune. He ended the show (yup just five songs) with his mega-hit “She Blinded Me With Science” by telling a very funny story about the scientist whose voice he sampled in the song.
After the standing ovation Dolby changed hats from his felt fedora to a large cowboy stetson to perform perhaps his most ambitious (and my least favorite) song from the new CD, straight-ahead bluegrass tune “Toad Lickers.” and that was it. Dolby left the stage promising to return for a proper tour in the fall (his first since in over two decades) with a band (let’s hope he means bass, drums, guitar and keyboards) then dashed into the gift shop to sign autographs and sell merchandise.
Who won the fight, I mean night(s)? Well for an evening of pure nostalgia packed with well-known hits, the prize goes to Howard Jones, who, although halfheartedly, delivered what people wanted to hear by playing his two biggest hits albums.
While Thomas Dolby’s new material is great, the evening had an extremely academic feel to it and the fact that he played only six songs in total left me feeling a bit underwhelmed. We can only hope his spring tour proves what this show couldn’t.