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Prague Fringe 2014

Jamie MacDowell and Tom Thumb

Jamie MacDowell and Tom Thumb

Genre: Music

Venue: Malostranska Beseda


Low Down

One guitar, a few microphones, some effects pedals… who would imagine that out of these paltry materials two dedicated musicians could conjure a veritable roller coaster of sounds and emotions? Buckle your seats, ladies and gentlemen, because with this show you’re in for a thrilling ride.  


Hailing from two disparate cities in the vast land of Australia, Melbourne and Brisbane, Jamie and Tom met while performing together in a modern circus troupe that toured the world. Tom was already engaged in music, playing in the circus band, while Jamie, surprising considering his innate musical gifts, was performing as an acrobat. Out of the spotlight, Jamie displayed his songwriting skills and the idea gradually emerged that they might try playing together. After a meager initial session, they didn’t play music together again for two whole years. Talk about a bad first date! Yet some gravity of will drove them to try again. We’re lucky that they gave it another shot, and have now married their skills into a synergetic musical duo that positively sizzles.

I’ll be bold. Beatboxing just ain’t my thing. A clichéd and gang-drenched, mindlessly repetitive musical genre, it’s the type of sophomoric adolescent crap I normally run from or try to tune out when it slushes out of the speakers of a club I’d pay NOT to have to enter. This is different. What Johnny Cash did to Country music, Tom does to Beatboxing. I thought I hated it till he showed me just how much of it there is to love.

Like anyone who has a profoundly extraordinary gift, Tom never submitted himself to the freight train of the mediocre we call musical instruction. He never had a voice teacher. The isolated time he approached one, he was conscientiously informed that he was doing everything wrong. Thank God he trusted his own hearing enough not to listen. ‘Improve’ a Picasso by meticulously placing the nose and lips in the anatomically correct places and you’ll end up with a painting headed for the trash heap not the Louvre. Perhaps this is why Tom’s abilities so completely entranced me: untrained, unruly, wrong, they are truly sensational.  

I’ll be bold again, Tom is not a typical beatboxer, but rather a windy DJ of the ineffable. Spontaneous sighs and gasps ripple out as the audience sways in collective amazement that one voice can produce so many disparate (and startling) effects. At one point, taking the stage alone, he engages us in a virtual radio broadcast that veers around the globe, zooming from his tone-perfect rendition of a didgeridoo, to Indian music with its resounding tabla, to an Asian lute and flute duet, chugs through European disco with its incessantly charging bass, and culminates in an American jazz group Tom fluidly loops, with effects, into a full band fronted by a mysterious trumpeter. Yes, all these sounds produced in mellifluous sequence by one voice, gifting us with the rain-drenched jewels of a person dedicated to mining the edge of musical possibility.

Throw in Jamie, a singer with a guitar, yet another quite clichéd contemporary Phenom- though one I confess is much closer to my own natural zone of appreciation. (After all, my favorite Rabbis are Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, and Simon and Garfunkel.) In the same vein, Jamie’s subdued flood of lyrics and melodic invention quickly had me mesmerized. While less explosively dazzling than Tom as an individual performer (and less rare) Jamie consistently proffers a high to superlative level of songwriting. And in songs like Brother, Jamie delivers the natural bare-knuckled punch to the heart chakra that we all yearn to experience from art. As phrase after phrase hammers home, empathy, that elusive elixir, gushes from him and his voice and guitar to sweep over us and our momentarily phone-switched-off radiant selves. 

Salt and pepper. Rice and soy sauce. Jamie and Tom. The Combination (a safe-cracker might mutter) is the thing. As good as each performer is in their own right, again and again I thought of how fortunate they (and, in turn, we) are that they have forged a common musical destiny. 

The spirit of Fringe is dedicated to showcasing edgy performances that push the boundaries of what Theatre is, what music is, what life can be. Some shows at Fringe, let’s face it, while entertaining, are not that earth and heaven-shaking. But occasionally, with an peculiar flash of human ingenuity, a show comes along that elaborates on the human condition. More than a momentary stay against confusion, such shows make our world, for a few holy instants, bigger (and our fears, in comparison, less substantial). This is one of those shows and if you miss it your world will be smaller.