The four members of the pioneering electronic band Kraftwerk stand in a row on stage wearing black Spiderman-like suits with a white grid pattern, virtually motionless in front of their consoles, as though navigating a spaceship rather than performing a gig.
Kraftwerk is playing in its home town of Dusseldorf for the first time in more than 20 years, in a hall at the K-20 art museum. Last night was “The Man-Machine,” one of eight concerts, each focusing on a different album. The band played a series in the same format at the Museum of Modern Art in New York last year and is performing at London’s Tate Modern next month.
Visual fun comes from projections on the screen behind them. Audience members, equipped with white 3-D specs, gasped and ducked as a virtual spaceship ploughed toward them during the track “Spacelab.” In “Metropolis,” stylized, anonymous, grid-like cityscapes, devoid of people, shift and turn in an intriguing dance.
Kraftwerk’s popularity has endured; in fact, the band may even be more valued with hindsight. Tate Modern said its website was “overwhelmed by the phenomenal number of people attempting to access it simultaneously” to buy tickets for next month’s concerts.
The tunes and lyrics are simple, the beats repetitive and the delivery deadpan, yet Kraftwerk’s minimalist style has been cited by groups like Joy Division and Depeche Mode as an influence. The band’s early use of synthesizers was quickly followed by others, and Kraftwerk is often viewed as a precursor to techno music. Just one founding member is still in the band - - the singer and songwriter Ralf Huetter.
The 1978 album “Man-Machine” includes Kraftwerk’s U.K. No. 1 single, “The Model,” and the catchy “Robots.” Several devotees in the Dusseldorf audience wore the red shirts with slim black ties that feature on the album cover -- some of them over substantial middle-aged paunches.
Most of the audience was aged more than 40, which suggests it is a good week for Dusseldorf baby-sitters. Some audience members had brought the kids with them, eliminating the need for anxious text-messaging. Others had traveled from the U.K. for the concert, perhaps after falling victim to the Tate’s website.
And all were appreciative, even if two hours is a long time to stand at this age. After performing the “Man-Machine” tracks, the band ran through some of their other hits, earning enthusiastic cheers and applause.
A Volkswagen Beetle with Dusseldorf number-plates, driver unseen, motors along an almost-empty highway in an animated projection accompanying “Autobahn.” The song strikes a nostalgic note as a retro-futuristic tribute to the automobile, good roads and German postwar industrial success.
“Radioactivity,” warning of the dangers of nuclear power, sounds as topical as ever, particularly with the addition of Fukushima (and a caution in Japanese) to a list of incidents that includes Chernobyl and Harrisburg. “Tour de France” pays homage to cycling, with heavy breathing and footage of old races (no mention of doping scandals).
The band left the stage one-by-one to “Music Non Stop,” whose lyrics “synthetic electronic sounds/ industrial rhythms all around” are a fitting summary of the evening. I was glad of the groovy 3-D visual effects -- the music alone would not have been enough to keep me interested.
Kraftwerk is performing at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein- Westfalen in Dusseldorf from Jan. 11 to Jan. 20. The band will perform at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London from Feb. 6 through Feb. 14. Both concert series are sold out. For more information, go to http://www.kunstsammlung.de/ and http://www.tate.org.uk or http://kraftwerk.com/
An exhibition called “Kraftwerk -- Robots” at the NRW- Forum museum in Dusseldorf, featuring photographs of the band by Peter Boettcher, runs through Jan. 30. For more information, go to http://www.nrw-forum.de/kraftwerk_roboter
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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