With Thomas Dolby in the Floating City

Members of the Poison River Delta tribe getting to meet Thomas Dolby

The Game Neverending (GNE) changed my life, but I wasn’t looking for a game or new friends, just following related links after reading a short story. In a similar fashion, after a chance notice of a TED blog link while purportedly culling my RSS subscriptions, I embarked in the research ship Snowdonia to help form the Floating City in Thomas Dolby’s online alternate reality game. Barely familiar with his music three months ago, I now have a few albums (downloaded for free as game prizes), an autographed deluxe album, a couple dozen favorite songs, and more that in memories. Additionally, the experience culminated this last weekend in a show that wouldn’t have been as special were it not for the conditions created by the game. Allow me to explain.

As the main prize was a private concert, participants were rolled into tribes based on geographical areas. “The Delta” was small, and bonding with other players was inevitable as we solved puzzles, created crazy patents with our cargo, and tried to solve the mystery of the Floating City. Every Dolby album ever was represented as items in our cargo, and listening to a song is now inseparable from associating it with the items we were hunting from it. Songs were also used in other ways as backdrop to content, and automatically have memories as well: “Budapest by Blimp” the near-endgame blimp ride and chat, “Evil Twin Brother” and “Spice Train” the “sorties” or missions where we heard these unpublished songs for the first time.

The XM Scribble WallSadly our tribe and our larger group of allied tribes did not win the grand prize concert. However, Dolby visited the XM Studio in Washington, D.C. to tape a radio show featuring several songs and commentary and stories about the Floating City game. Thus we not only had a private and intimate concert with Dolby, but a built-in meetup with some of our teammates. Even being in the studios was interesting: seeing rows of glass-walled recording rooms and bouncing in anticipation with other fans.

The XM “Loft” is a dark and small room, perhaps five rows of seats, with blue lighting, large speakers, and in this case, just Dolby’s laptop and synthesizer equipment up front. Sitting in the second row I was perhaps as close as I’ve ever been or will be to seeing an artist perform, and as we got the chance to see him record samples on the fly for Hyperactive, it was interesting for those peeks as well. Each song was introduced with snippets about the game or song, sometimes asking for audience feedback or participation. Though a newbie, I enjoyed his energy, humor, storytelling, and of course, the music on his new album. Sweeping from the panoramas of his “spiritual homeland” in Oceanea, the darker and dance-y beats on Urbanoia, and to the styles of my own Amerikana which he called home for 22 years, it’s an album I’ve listened to a few times already.

Set list from the broadcast (links are to Spotify)

  • Europa and the Pirate Twins (After having this song in our heads for our drive home, Miss Nerissa Panic and I serendipitously ended up at the Europa Cafe eating delicious tapas)
  • To the Lifeboats: Dolby related how the location of his recording studio (the moored boat Nutmeg) affected his music and dreaming up the game
  • Evil Twin Brother: My in-game favorite from the new album.
  • Spice Train: A nod to the “floating cities” created in historic Japan by boats being so densely packed that they’d simply tie up to each other and begin trading. Obviously played a part in our game! (If you hear the XM broadcast, that’s us providing the handclaps. :))
  • The Toad Lickers: Techno-bluegrass for the Amerikana continent! (And yes, per Dolby, if you want to see the YouTube video, which I recommend, just search for “barnyard animal puppet porn” and you’ll see his name)
  • Hyperactive
  • She Blinded Me With Science: Never realized that voice of “She blinded me…with science!” was an actual scientist, famous in England for…being a scientist.

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10 2011


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