Thursday, April 17, 2014

Live Show Review: Kraftwerk- 4/4/14

Date:  April 4, 2014
Venue:  9:30 Club, Washington, DC

I couldn't help but grin like an idiot as Afrika Bambaataa's 1982 electro/hip-hop anthem "Planet Rock" came on the system while I had a burger and beer at the bar adjacent to the 9:30 Club a couple weeks back, just moments before catching Kraftwerk's first live performance in DC in nine years.  Of course, the hook and beat of Bambaataa's classic are built on samples from Kraftwerk's 1977 track "Trans Europe Express" and "Numbers" from 1981, respectively.  Kraftwerk's indelible influence on popular music, especially post-punk and new wave, hip-hop, and electronic dance music, can't be overstated.  

Kraftwerk (Ralf Hutter and Henning Schmitz)

Kraftwerk formed in Dusseldorf, Germany, in 1970 amidst that nascent "krautrock" scene with two classically trained music students at the helm - Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider.  This was the original oddball robo-duo, coaxing beats and melody out of machines thirty years before Daft Punk.  Hutter and Schneider would soon expand to a foursome and though they weren't the first to make electronic music, like the Beatles in their genre, Kraftwerk hit on a revolutionary formula and sparked a musical explosion that reverberates to this day.

After putting out nine studio albums at a consistent pace during the 70's and 80's, Kraftwerk eased back on the throttle as their musical progeny surpassed them on the charts.  The band settled into elder statesmen status, shedding and replacing ancillary members while founders Hutter and Schneider tinkered in their legendary Kling Klang Studio on the occasional remix or remaster.  2003 saw the release of their first studio album in seventeen years, an excellent Tour de France Soundtracks, and a rekindling of the band's touring spirit.  I last caught Kraftwerk at the 9:30 Club in 2005 - a sold out show, and a truly unforgettable experience.

Kraftwerk (Ralf Hutter and Henning Schmitz)

So Kraftwerk returned in 2014 for another sold out gig*, minus founding member Florian Schneider who left the band quietly in 2008.  Lone founder Ralph Hutter was joined onstage by long time associates Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz, and new "video technician" Falk Grieffenhagen - wearing matching spandex outfits and arranged at their stations in a neat four man row.  That video technician earned his keep as the CGI imagery for the show was projected in 3D, with each song featuring a unique visual theme pertinent to its subject matter.  The crowd, all wearing collectible paper 3D glasses, gasped and shrieked as the camera swooped through a future cityscape for "Metropolis," between two speeding cars for "Autobahn," and over the earth as satellites whizzed into the foreground for "Spacelab."

Appropriately enough, Kraftwerk's set leaned heavily on selections from their two most defining and prophetic albums, 1978's The Man-Machine and 1981's Computer World, with tracks like "Numbers," "Computer World," and "Home Computer" stitched together in flowing sonic montages.  Other tracks from the catalogue took on new weight and uncharacteristic menace.  "Radioactivity," from their 1975 album Radio-Activity, uncoiled like a sinister half-time dubstep track right out of a Youngsta set with vocodered references to nuclear disasters in Chernobyl, Harrisburg, Sellafield, and, timely enough, Fukushima.

Kraftwerk (Ralf Hutter and Henning Schmitz)

My favorite part of the show was a three track sequence with 1983 single "Tour de France" followed by two beautifully restyled versions of that track from their 2003 album of the same name - "Tour de France Etape 1" and "Tour de France Etape 2."  Sweeping aerial footage of the French cycling event played onscreen in stunning 3D behind the band.  The latter two tracks are undoubtedly the most contemporary in the Kraftwerk catalogue - paying homage to the minimal Detroit techno the band inspired long ago.  Despite never playing their goofiest hit, 1981's "Pocket Calculator," Kraftwerk played a great set - covering essential highlights spanning their nearly fifty-year career and handily reconfirming their unimpeachable tenure as true pioneers and godfathers of electronic music.

*Krafwerk played two back-to-back sold out gigs at the 9:30 Club on 4/4/14.  I attended the early show.

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