Kraftwerk. A band whose name, in English, means “power plant,” but, since it’s German, the name is somehow more elemental in the band’s native language. Basically: power+work.
I’m still, this afternoon at least, luxuriating in the memory of their concert last night at the United Palace Theatre, and I’m at work. Kraftwerk actually lifts the soul of the man before a computer in a windowless office in midtown, and lifts that soul hours later. Which is strange, maybe even ironic, since so much of their music is about our alienation from nature though technology. “The Man-Machine” is direct about this: “Halb Wesen/Halb Maschine.” (“Half essence (nature)/half machine.”) By alienation, of course, separation is meant. Usually, we’re not near dirt anymore, in other words. Perhaps the German is better. “Verfremdung.” Literally, making strange.
I’m typing on my iPad while I watch two monitors, alert and ready to respond near instanteously to the first stray email which comes my way, demanding that I do something that I don’t particularly want to do. So is my life today.
The United Palace Theatre is one of those fantastic ornate old movie palaces from the Thirties, 1930, to be exact, capacity 3,293, in this case saved from demolition by the Revered Frederick J. Eikerenkoetter II, a/k/a “Reverend Ike,” who, if there is a heaven, has earned his place in it, in my estimation, for saving this incredible building, that could never be built again, unless post-industrial civilization collapses but only goes back to industrial civilization. The place is wondrous: the critic David W. Dunlap called it “Byzantine-Romanesque-Indo-Hindu-Sino-Moorish-Persian-Eclectic-Rococo-Deco.”
As for Rev. Ike, (d. 2009), he practiced something called “prosperity theology,” which holds that financial blessing is the will of God for Christians. Rev. Ike’s radio ministry peaked in the Seventies with his “Blessing Plan,” in which listeners sent him money, and he blessed them.
Okay, maybe Rev. Ike belongs in a particular precinct of heaven.
Since 2007, the theatre has been used for concerts in addition to religious services, and, as for Kraftwerk, it’s fitting that they chose this venue. The theatre is paneled with wood, a resolutely non-electronic substance, but one that can provide superb acoustics. And seeing the four members of Kraftwerk, dressed alike in black body suits with white Cartesian cross hatches (at first, I thought they were wearing plaid – my bad), in their very techno onstage set, in this setting, underscored technological alienation.
We’ve all heard Kraftwerk’s music a hundred times. I was, of course, waiting for “Autobahn,” and I was not disappointed. Every song (Are these songs?) was well-crafted, and showed something different from the recorded version. Of course, this is highly-scripted music; after all, there are no instruments that anyone is playing in the classic sense of the term. It’s hard to say that the guy second from right was doing a great job on the electronic drums (if that’s what you call it) in “Boing Boom Tschak,” the way that a classical critic can talk about a violin soloists handling of the second movement of the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. I will say this; I was bowled over; my spirits were raised; and the spell is still with me.
The visual part is a big part of any music performance, even for orchestras that sit still, but for this one, Kraftwerk used 3-D animation to in effect illustrate each song. The 3-D was brilliant, complicated, elaborate, and changed the very character of the show. It’s only the second live performance I’ve seen using 3-D technology (the other was the Rockettes – I was with family), and this time is was throughout the two hours, starting with the band, enlarged, in their red shirts and black ties seemingly hovering over the first rows for “The Robots.” The 3-D visuals were integral to the performance. For “Metropolis,” the backdrop echoed the movie; for “Spacelab,” it referenced the space station in 2001. (At first, I thought it copied.) And the space station at times seem to come right at the audience.
There were also some delightful anachronistic low tech, or at least not that high-tech, touches, presented in the computer animation. For “Home Computer,” we had an old Apple II; for “Autobahn,” we saw an old VW bug racing, and losing to, an early 70s Mercedes, one of the models that had a hint of fins in the back. For “Tour de France,” newsreels of 1950s Tours de France filled the screen. For “Trans-Europe Express,” we got a high-tech sleek train against rails shifting across the ground, but trains are still, in some fashion, not that technological. Or at least they 21st century ones still feel a little 19th century.
The band members stood at consoles, facing the audience, impassive as always, but their faces have aged, like mine. It’s sexy, but nerd sexy. That’s good to see. There is hope!
I’ve gone on long enough, or maybe not, but I’m at work, and I’ve got a feeling that they are about to ask me to do something I don’t particularly feel like doing.
Setlist, courtesy of setlist.fm:
1. The Robots; 2. Metropolis; 3. Numbers; 4. Computer World; 5. It’s More Fun to Compute; 6. Home Computer; 7. Computer Love; 8. The Man-Machine; 9. Spacelab; 10. The Model; 11. Neon Lights; 12. Autobahn; 13. Prologue; 14. Tour De France; 15. Airwaves; 16. News; 17. Geiger Counter; 18. Radioactivity; 19. Ohm Sweet Ohm; 20. Trans-Europe Express; 21. Metal on Metal; 22. Abzug; 23. Boing Boom Tschak; 24. Techno Pop; 25. Musique Non Stop; Encore:; 26. Aéro Dynamik 27. Planet of Visions.
–Kraftwerk 3D in concert, review by Franklin Mount