March 18th through 21st, legendary German electronic music pioneers, Kraftwerk, treated audiences to unique performances, each highlighting one of their 8 albums in their 40+ year career, reaching all the way back to 1974 with the album Autobahn. Kraftwerk recently launched a world tour featuring 3D animations as a backdrop and the esteemed Walt Disney Concert Hall seemed at once the perfect setting and an unusual choice for their precise electronic tones and pulsing beats, known for its acoustics built for analog instruments (i.e., symphonic performances!).
For Thursday night, a good friend and lifelong Kraftwerk fan flew out to join us for the evening performance of their 1981 album Computer World. Founding member Ralf Hütter and 3 newer members who have joined the band since the ’90s entered the stage donning Tron-esque bodysuits and took their positions behind edge-lit black podiums. They started the set with the minimalist “Numbers” as a computer-green matrix of numbers rippled in 3D while robotic voices counted out number sequences in multiple languages. The visuals had a decidedly retro-futurist look, harkening back to the birth of the IBM PC back in 1981 when the album was released. It should be also be noted that “Numbers” was very influential on the early hip hop artists of the time, particularly for its layered beats.
Four more songs from Computer World followed before diving into a “greatest hits” set performed in rough chronological order, the first of which was “Autobahn”, an unlikely hit single in the US back in 1974. Kraftwerk treated us to a version that was an abbreviated version of the 22-minute original, as we took a virtual drive on the autobahn! Next up was minor single “Radioactivity” from the 1975 album of the same name. Here, as in many other performances on this night, they chose to emulate the original recording for the first half of the song and then segue into more modern stylings similar to what they did on The Mix (1991), which was an attempt to update their earlier hits with newer techno sounds. In this case, the message was also updated, as a new reference to the Fukushima nuclear disaster took its place alongside other disasters of the past: Chernobyl, Harrisburg, Sellafield.
The middle set included a sleek train ride aboard the Trans-Europe Express courtesy of their breakthrough 1977 album of the same name, followed by a set of four songs from The Man Machine (1978). The 3D experience reached a dazzling pinnacle during “Spacelab” — a song that they have not performed live in decades — as a satellite orbiting the earth tilted and spun right into the audience! You almost felt the need to duck for fear of being skewered by its antenna! A brief reprieve from the 3D experience occurred during “The Model” (a bona fide hit single in the UK), which revisited the classic black & white footage of chic european models from the ’50s and ’60s that were used in the original promo video back in the day.
The final set, which was designed without an encore, featured two long form medleys. The first was “Tour De France” which coupled the original beat-boxey 1983 single with the similarly named long form piece from their most recent “new” album Tour De France Soundtracks (2003). All was set to vintage black & white footage of Tour De France races (no Lance Armstrong references to be found!) upon which colored effects were layered on top, which turned out to be very hypnotic and visually arresting. Lastly, the “Boing Boom Tschak / Musique Non Stop” suite from their somewhat maligned Techno Pop album from 1986 (originally released as Electric Café) rounded out the set, complete with kitschy starbursts and typefaces spelling out the sound effects in onomatopoeiac form as in comic books.
To sum it all up, Kraftwerk truly dazzled audiences and the sound was crisp and reverb-free due to the incredible acoustics of the venue. The 3D effects were often subdued but functional, serving their retro-futurist vision quite handily. Kraftwerk are well aware that they are pioneers who are no longer necessarily cutting edge, and have bowed gracefully to the new generations of electronic musicians of the past 25 years for whom they laid the technological asphalt. After the world tour wraps up, Ralf Hütter has hinted at a ninth studio album, and one can hope that it won’t be as long as the gap between the last two: 12 years!
The world tour continues into August. For the latest dates, go to http://www.kraftwerk.com/concerts/index-concerts.html