Archive for February, 2007


Monday, February 19th, 2007

I played a concert in New York Thursday night with Ethel, a progressive string quartet. I first met them at Joe’s Pub in 2005, and we invited them to perform at the TED Conference last February. They are an astonishing group of players who met at Juilliard, but unlike many classically trained musicians, they’re able to stretch out and lend their skills to many diverse styles of music. They often collaborate with rock musicians like Joe Jackson and Todd Rundgren, and have a flair for rhythmic beats that would do Led Zep proud; yes they can segue effortlessly into Phillip Glass-style mesmerism, or even Delta blues.


Thursday’s performance was billed as the first annual Ethel Fair, where they brought together a group of friends to raise money for their non-profit foundation. Also on the bill were the brilliant multi-instrumentalist Mark Stewart (currently working as Paul Simon’s right-hand); Klesmer clarinetist David Krakauer; a young prog-rock band Electric Konpany; Navajo singer/storyteller James Bilagody; and a guy called Kurt who has a band called P.A.M. the’s entirely made up of mechanical automata.

Not having a full crew, I just brought a ‘B’ rig consisting of my MacBook, Virus TI Polar, and a TriggerFinger. I built up ‘The Flat Earth’ from scratch; then in the second half Ethel joined me onstage for ‘I Love You Goodbye’ and ‘Science’.

I enjoyed making use of the venue’s tasty 9′ Steinway concert grand. The last time I played a ’steam’ piano onstage in NYC it was the white grand that comes up out of the stage at Radio City Music Hall. And it’s been a while since I sang into anything other than my headset Crown mic, so it was strange to have a boom mic that doesn’t follow my mouth around!

It was great having real strings (and Mark Stewart’s banjo) on ‘ILYGB’. It’s the first time I’ve played it live since New Year’s Eve 1999, and it sounded really fresh. Ethel are very easy to work with, and I hope to compose something specifically for them one day.

The only downer was that when I arrived at JFK airport yesterday for my flight back to San Francisco an hour and 35 minutes prior to my flight, it was utter mayhem and after standing in three didfferent lines, by the time I got to the front I was told it was too late to make my flight. There were no more that day and the first one they could get me on was the same flight 24 hours later! Fortunately I have some good friends in Brooklyn who rescued me and took me to their family’s Chinese New Year party, which was a lot of fun. So now I’m catching up on some email backlog and I’ll make sure to get back to the airport REALLY early today.

Stevie and Marvin

Friday, February 9th, 2007

I just watched a clip on YouTube that filled in a missing blank in my personal history. And I’m blubbing my eyes out right now.

In 1985 I was asked to perform live at the Grammy Awards with Stevie Wonder, Herbie Hancock, and Howard Jones. [Note: there is also a clip of this, but that's NOT what this blog is about. Read on!] The producers wanted us to play a synth medley consisting of one hit from each of us, and ending with the US National Anthem. As the TV show was to be mimed, we were booked to record the backing track the day before the dress rehearsal at Stevie’s studio on Western in Los Angeles, which was a huge and beautiful old movie theater.

This was quite an elaborate process, and it took all day. Towards nightfall Stevie’s manager took myself and Howard aside and told us that Stevie was going to play a practical joke on Herbie, and it was going to be filmed for a TV show called ‘Bloopers.’ Stevie had told Herbie that we’d been recording on a brand new prototype Sony 48-track digital recorder, and that two top Sony executives from Japan were coming to be filmed with us at the session. They showed up, bowing very cheerfully, everybody danced around to our groovy backing track, and the cameraman was getting it all down. But suddenly someone in the control room pressed the wrong button, and the tape went silent. It seemed all 48 tracks had mistakenly gone into ‘erase’ mode, leaving a 5-second silence in our recording.

Of course, everybody but Herbie knew it was all a hoax. They allowed him to suffer for about 5 minutes before telling him the truth. Everybody was delighted with the joke, even Herbie, and around midnight people started to disperse to different parts of the building.

But I was a bit concernced as we had not yet recorded ‘The Star Spangled Banner’, and we were due at the Grammy’s rehearsal in about 10 hours’ time. So I went to look for Stevie in the maze of small rooms scattered around the building. Usually he is pretty easy to find as there’s an entourage of several people with him. But on this occasion he was nowhere to be found.

I eventually tracked Stevie down. He was all alone, in an attic-like room on the top floor of the building filled with old files and papers. He was on his knees, playing a beaten-up upright piano.

I announced my presence, and reminded him we had an anthem to record. He asked if I had any ideas for it. I said, what about a really slow sexy groove on a drum machine, and really spread it out? Stevie thought for a moment, then said ‘uh-uh. Marvin tried that one time man. He sang it that way at an NBA all-star game, and you know what? he never got on TV again until the day he died. Because all the network executives couldn’t handle a black man singing a sexy soul version of the National Anthem.’

Ok, I thought, that wasn’t such a good idea. But the image of Marvin, one of my all time favorite singers, shocking televisionland in his own inimitable style, was too much. So I said ‘wow, that must have sounded pretty great! How did he sing it?’

Stevie’s head stopped moving and for a few seconds he was completely motionless. Then slowly his fingers found the piano keys, and he started to play and sing. He sang the song through to the end. For those two minutes I don’t think my heart beat at all. I couldn’t breathe. I swear if my vital signs had been hooked up to a monitor, it would have been a flatline.

He was simultaneously recalling the song; translating the chords into a gospel style; and playing in his memory banks, if not perhaps the exact licks, then at least the soul and the feeling of Marvin’s vocal performance from two years earlier. His only audience was me, huddled in a corner of this dusty attic. And any single line was one that I (or any almost other singer on the planet) would have given my right eye for.

I’ve told this story a few times over the years. But until tonight, I had never seen Marvin’s actual performance the NBA game. I’d never thought to look for it on YouTube—though now I come to think of it, it’s a natural for someone to put up there. By chance I saw an article today about Marvin, and it included a link to the clip. So, thanks to YouTube, a little piece of history is now complete for me. From the first few seconds I was completely crying my eyes out.

Here it is.

A few concerts in California and Texas

Monday, February 5th, 2007

I’m pleased to announce I’ll be playing a few live concerts in March. This came about because I was invited to appear at South By South West (SxSW) in Austin, Texas. If you’ve never heard of this, it’s an annual festival that the entire indie music business converges on, and literally hundreds of bands try to make a name for themselves. I’ve been offered a showcase at the Elysium Club on the Strip, and it’s a great opportunity to get my show in front af a new set of influential people that might not otherwise have come.

As SxSW is unpaid, I asked my agents to string together some dates around it to cover the cost, and this is what they came up with. There are several towns I’ve never played before. Don’t expect to buy LA tickets in advance, it’s a private function but they tell me walk-up on the night will be no problem. We’ll put more info on the web site closer to the day. (And as I mentioned in a recent blog, you’re probably a year too late and a few grand too poor to come to TED!)

I’m also delighted that the Jazz Mafia Horns will be appearing with me, as featured in my current podcast. It’s a lot of fun when they join me onstage and focus on some of my funkier tunes. We’re hoping to add a couple more songs into the set to feature the brass more.

Here are the dates, starting with the TED Conference:

Wed 7th March TED–Monterey, CA
Thu 8th March TED–Monterey, CA
Fri 9th March TED–Monterey, CA
Sat 10th March Santa Cruz–Kuumbwa (2 shows)
Sun 11th March Redwood City, CA–Fox Theater (2 shows)
Mon 12th March Sacramento, CA–Harlows
Tue 13th March Los Angeles, CA–Henry Fonda Theater
Thu 15th March Austin, TX–SxSW–Elysium
Fri 16th March Austin, TX–SxSW–day show
Sat 17th March Austin, TX–SxSW–private party
Sat 18th March Dallas, TX–Rockhouse Live
Thu 22nd March Fairfax, CA–19 Broadway


Friday, February 2nd, 2007


Hello, I am a teacher at Mira Loma High School and I am currently teaching
NIGHT by Elie Wiesel and I was thinking of using the lyrics from “Budapest
by blimp” as an example of entertainers trying to raise the consciousness of
society to the atrocities that have been inflicted on humanity.

This being said, I was wondering if there was any way that you could help me
to learn more about Thomas Dolby’s inspiration for the song?
Or what the blimp symbolizes?
Or anything else related to the song?

If you can not help help me with this, can you steer me to someone who
possibly can?

Anything is appreciated.

Many thanks,
Michael Bender
English Department
Mira Loma High School


Michael, this is quite timely as the song features in my current video podcast. I’m sometimes reluctant to spill the beans about everything that was going on in my head when I wrote a song, because sometimes people form their own opinions and make connections that relate to their lives, and I don’t want to supplant those with my ‘official’ version. But I’ll tell you a little bit about ‘Budapest By Blimp’.

On the surface it’s a nostalgic love song written for a woman I left behind in Europe. The US places a high value on everything European, which it equates with class and substance. American immigrants over the years have mourned the loss of their old world values. I use terms which work both in the US and back home: ‘on the corners of boulevards’, and ‘in the cafes and shoppping malls’. Many of the terms refer to American attempts to emulate Europe—’under pillars and palaces…’ always made me think of Washington DC. It seems I’m missing European charm and history. A train whistle blows mournfully in the distance.

But things are not quite what they seem. In the second verse it starts to turn a bit nasty. I complain ‘how far away I’ve drifted’. It’s all a ‘tragedy’, a ‘grand illusion.’ And it’s not at all the way they taught you in school.

An innocent child’s voice comes in—sounding less like a happy Hungarian schoolgirl, more like an orphaned refugee. The instrumental textures become a bit more unnerving, and strange voice samples almost sound like tormented ghosts from the past. The song crashes into an instrumental with a strong sense of urgency to it, like fleeing through cobbled streets at dusk.

The worst case scenario hits…. your imagination fills in the blank. A wolf howls. The fog clears. And an obscene, rouged Cabaret-style face appears, welcoming you (in pidgin French) to what’s left of Europe’s splendour: ‘a shriveled page, ripped from the book of history.’ All those riches America holds in such high esteem are really ill-gotten gains, amassed in Europe at the expense of all the tribes and races we trampled to become the great continent we were. It’s an ugly smack in the face for Imperialism through the centuries. We end the song floating over a huge, delusional crowd, packed into a spendid city square for a night rally, chanting for some imaginary leader. But the leader won’t give them what they want to hear. Over the tannoy he screams that the march of nations is ‘not really a goosestep—more of a limp.’ Overhead looms our massive gas-filled dirigeable, which could ignite and explode at any moment, leaving nothing but a crumpled, smoldering iron frame.

I never made a video for this song, because as you can tell, it would require a huge budget and a cast of thousands. But even if I had them at my disposal, I’m not sure I’d make the video. I think the song already tells the story the way I want it told. I’m delighted at the thought of your kids listening to it, 20 years after I recorded it, and still picking up on the imagery. I hope this helps!

TED piece on CBS

Thursday, February 1st, 2007

Here’s a nice clip about the annual TED Conference, for which I have acted as Musical Director over the past 5 years.

This year’s conference takes place March 7th-10th in Monterey, CA. It’s shaping up to be a good one, with speakers including Isabel Allende, Bill Clinton, and Richard Branson. We’ve managed to score some major musical talent also–how about Paul Simon, Tracy Chapman, They Might Be Giants and Raul Midon? And BT’s offered to spin at the last night party.

Forget about trying to buy a ticket though–TED’s always sold out at least six months in advance, costs $4400 a ticket, and you need to be invited. However, you can always download the FREE ‘TEDtalks‘–18 minute video slots featuring world class speakers.