Sunday, April 06, 2014

Das Kraftwerk Quartett


Around 1956, Buddy Holly established the quartet as the basic form of the rock band. In 1962, The Beatles made it de rigeur. On their 1975 tour, after a few years of line-up changes, Kraftwerk presented the rock quartet as an almost purely graphic concept. Granted, they may have actually needed eight hands on deck to play their music back then, but sequencers, computers and other technological advances have made that progressively less necessary. And when you consider the fact that Kraftwerk is now touring with precisely synced 3-D video, it almost makes more sense for them to have one person controlling everything. But they remain wedded to the four-man-band, if only for its visual power - and they are right to do so. The sight of the four podia (Keyboards? Decks? Desks?) precisely aligned on stage has become as iconic as the four heads on the cover of With The Beatles.

Although a longtime fan of Kraftwerk I didn't really get the point of seeing them until I heard Minimum-Maximum, their live album from 2005. The cheers of the crowd activated an energy in the music and the collective joy was apparent even without any visuals. Like all but a lucky few, I was closed out of their run of shows at MOMA a couple of years ago so when they announced a date (later expanded to two) at United Palace Theater I made it my business to get tickets. I was a bit surprised that they chose the elaborate former movie palace on 175th and Broadway as the venue, but the fact is that both concerts I've been to there (Bob Dylan, 2007, and Fleet Foxes, 2011) were highly memorable and I expected no less from Kraftwerk.

The vibe in the buzzing crowd led me to believe that many of the attendees had never been this far uptown before. Even though United Palace is in my backyard as an Inwood dweller, the pioneering spirit lent a frisson that was contagious. I was psyched and so was everyone there. Even though only one original member remains (Ralf Hutter) and Kraftwerk hasn't released anything new since 2003, this didn't feel like an excursion into nostalgia any more than going to Shakespeare play or a seeing a Picasso exhibit. Kraftwerk is simply one of the most influential forces in pop since Edison waxed the first cylinder and this was an opportunity to commune with their timeless music in circumstances fully within their control.

Finally, the lights went down and the red curtain parted to reveal the screen. The four members took their places and the introduction to The Robots began to a unanimous roar from the audience. The familiar figures of the band in red shirts and black ties from the cover of The Man-Machine (1978) went through their paces in 3-D, converted into robotic digital mannequins. Whenever an arm swept close to the crowd, there were more cheers. Clearly, nobody in the place was jaded by the effect. It didn't hurt that Kraftwerk's sound team had turned the antique theater into a gleaming sonic temple, with deep rich bass and well-differentiated textures. There were some rude folks who continued to arrive as the band moved seamlessly into Metropolis from the same album. I suppose the trip on the A train was longer than they anticipated.

Ralf Hutter's voice sounded a bit less substantial than in the past but still retained his tart, slightly bemused tone. He sang mostly in English, an unnecessary concession at this late date, but the lyrics are schematic enough that it hardly mattered. A little suite of songs from Computer World (1981), their last classic album, followed and it was hard not to get up and dance to the booming beat of Numbers, still as improbably, wonderfully funky as it was 33 years ago. Then they swung back and played the rest of The Man-Machine, with the bass of the title track especially revelatory - this was how it was supposed to sound - and the animation for Spacelab a whimsical delight. This brilliant album is inexplicably not included in Kraftwerk's Spotify discography - just buy it if you don't have it!

The visuals for The Model and Neon Lights cleverly harkened back to the glory days of UFA and German cinema, and the latter track segued perfectly in Autobahn, which was their American breakthrough in 1974 - even my mom used to sing it. We all went on a little drive on the titular highway, speeding past vintage Beetles and Mercedes-Benzes, before signaling properly and exiting. The sense of forward motion continued through Tour de France (1983) and selections from the album (2003) of the same name. We zoomed straight into the abyss of Radio-Activity (1975) and the mood of optimism palled, especially when the names of nuclear disaster sites, including Fukushima, flashed on the screen. Like a well-sequenced mix tape, however, they brought us all to safety on the Trans-Europe Express. While I would have liked to hear the Showroom Dummies or The Hall Of Mirrors, both slightly bitter tracks from the same album (1977), their medley was great, succesfully replicating the hypnotic flow of the record.

Nearly every band with a long career stumbles, and Techno-Pop (originally called Electric Cafe) from 1986, was Kraftwerk's fall from grace. With a labored genesis of nearly five years, and an equally labored sound - an ironically troubled adjustment to digital instruments for these sonic innovators - the album led to a 17 year hiatus. In concert, they played the first side in a substantially re-tooled version and it was much improved and very engaging, despite the fact that the songs still sound somewhat recycled. During Musique Non Stop, each member of Kraftwerk got a little solo spot before stepping away to stand in a spotlight and accept applause. Without going to multiple concerts it's impossible to say how much of what they played was improvised or pre-programmed, but it all sounded fabulous and the gestures of the other members showing appreciation for their comrades were well-choreographed and amusing.

Finally, Ralf Hutter was left alone to play his solo, injecting some drama into the song with dense washes of sound. Just as he seemed to be building to a crescendo, he stepped away to the loudest cheers of all, well befitting a living legend. The houselights stayed down and my mind-raced, trying to figure out what notable song they skipped. Pocket Calculator from Computer World would have made a great encore, but instead they played Aéro Dynamik, from Tour De France, and Planet Of Visions, the reworked version of their Expo 2000 theme song, which made its debut on Minimum-Maximum. The latter song is pretty terrific and sent everyone off into the night (or towards the besieged merch table) on waves of electro-euphoria.

While Kraftwerk's days of writing indelible, often prescient songs are likely behind them, the quality of every aspect of the concert showed them to be perfect stewards of their astounding legacy, which is in the DNA of all electronic music since their peak years. I've run into too many music fans who have no idea who they are; hopefully some of the noise generated by this tour will cause more people to investigate their amazing music. Even without songs from The Man-Machine, or the three albums that preceded Autobahn, my Spotify playlist will clue you in nicely if necessary.

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