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Monday, March 24, 2014

Kraftwerk Explores the Hits and Responds to its Legacy at the Fox Theater

Posted By on Mon, Mar 24, 2014 at 9:18 AM

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Fox Theater

Sunday, March 24, 2014

I've always thought Kodwo Eshun hit the nail on the head when he conceptualized Düsseldorf, Germany as the Mississippi Delta of electronic dance music culture. That sentiment, expressed in his book More Brilliant Than the Sun, is a direct reference to the enormous influence of Kraftwerk. The group's works in the '70s and '80s inspired a push towards electronics in dance music that resulted in the birth of house in Chicago, electro in New York and Miami, and, perhaps most directly, techno in Detroit. Now, 40 years since the release of Autobahn, electronic dance music is enjoying near-unprecedented levels of popularity in the mainstream, and the group is back touring.

Visual spectacle has always played a large role in Kraftwerk's live performances. Its members present themselves as an embodiment of the "man machine." In the early days, that meant performing with robotic motions and "robot suits" comprised of their iconic uniform of red shirts, black ties, and immaculately slicked-back hairdos. They'd often be accompanied by impressive synthesizer arrays, or, at least, the videos I've seen of them in the '70s and '80s suggest as much. Nowadays, however, they've adopted a different approach, which seems thoroughly rooted in the bombast of the present: it's a mixed-media split, with the four members performing in Tron-like suits while 3D projections sync up behind them. It's a little kitschy, but that's a part of the fun. At it's best, it's an appealing, immersive experience that offers a multisensory escape into a world of combined retro and high-tech fantasies.

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The curtain lifted, and I donned my 3D glasses. The clank and whir of "The Robots" was echoed by old footage taken from the song's '70s music video. You could hear people yell, "Whoooaaaaa" as a giant red-shirted arm seemed to reach out from the screen. "We are programmed just to do/Anything you want us to," sung the group's leader, Ralf Hütter, through a raspy vocoder. Lyrics and scenes flashed by, pulling the eye away from the group and toward the screen. By "Numbers," the group's second song, I'd stopped paying attention to the band members themselves, and was completely engrossed in the shifting banks of numerals behind them.

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It was an evening dedicated to the hits. Unlike the group's recent stretch of gigs in Los Angeles (which recreated a specific album each day), its performance in Oakland last night was a grab bag of favorites that rarely strayed towards the obscure. However, the versions performed were souped-up and modified; usually they did not perform a song in its original configuration. In most cases, this meant the rhythms were bulkier and more driving; a light, "boom-chack" had been replaced by booming kick drums reminiscent of contemporary German techno. In fact, a vast majority of the material was reminiscent of techno, a fact driven home by "Planet of Visions," a more recent song which had Hütter chanting a menacing, "Detroit. Germany. We're so electro."

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As is often the case with Kraftwerk's records, the best moments of the evening occurred during extended-length trips through tone poetry. The repetition and velocity of both "Autobahn" and "Trans-Europe Express" induced a kind of hypnosis-induced trance when paired with the appropriate 3D animation. More impressive, though, was "Tour De France," which stretched out into multiple segments that matched the "stages" of the song. As blue lines criss-crossed a map, the track kicked into a heavy techno lurch, with echoing trails splashing out from humming chords seemingly pulled from dub-techno.

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The group used these pieces to lead into more confrontational moments, like a particularly powerful and updated "Radioactivity," which featured a highlighter yellow 3D tri-foil and a roll-call of nuclear disasters: "Chernobyl," "Hiroshima," "Harrisburg," Fukushima." The glaring yellow screen almost seemed to bury Hütter as he tried to sing the verse, "Chain reaction and mutation; Contaminated population; Stop Radioactivity."

All the while, the 3D effects, though they consistently elicited a reaction, never seemed too over the top or campy. Getting the right balance between audio and visual is not easy, but it seems Kraftwerk have found something that uses both to their advantage. By the end, the show felt like a thorough representation of Kraftwerk as a live outfit. But perhaps more importantly, it also conveyed that the group is still evolving with, and responding to, the genres it helped create.

-- @derekopperman

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Derek Opperman


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