At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Thursday, July 3
You know you’re in for something a little different than the average concert experience when, upon entering the theatre, an usher hands you a small envelope containing a pair of 3-D glasses. Not that a Kraftwerk show was ever going to be average. This is the band that practically invented electronic music (or at the very least helped popularize the pop side of it). Without Kraftwerk’s influence, we probably wouldn’t have had new wave, Detroit techno, acid house, dubstep, and any number of other genres and subgenres.
Google tells us that, in its 44-year history, the German group has performed in Vancouver only once before. That concert took place at the PNE Garden Auditorium during the 1975 Autobahn tour, by which time Kraftwerk had progressed beyond its long-haired experimental-rock beginnings to embrace a more purely electronic sound. That was before many of the people at Thursday night’s Queen Elizabeth Theatre show were even born, so it’s a safe bet that most of us were seeing Kraftwerk for the first time.
The performance started with the band’s four current members—Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz, Falk Grieffenhagen, and founder and vocalist Ralf Hütter—clad in Tron-esque body suits, standing at four identical consoles. And that’s where they remained for the duration of the show. Stage presence is not Kraftwerk’s strong point, but as soon as the first song, “The Robots”, began, those 3-D glasses came in handy. On a huge screen behind the band were projected three-dimensional images of each member’s cyborg double, clad in the outfits immortalized on the cover of the 1978 LP The Man-Machine: red shirt, grey slacks, black tie.
This was to be something of a greatest-hits performance, as befits an act that hasn’t had a new record out since 2003’s Tour de France Soundtracks (and even that was largely a rehash of a single from 20 years before). So, we got the hits and they were, indeed, great. The sound was pristine, a sonic world at once nostalgic and futuristic, all crystalline synths and precision-tooled beats. In retrospect, the recorded versions of numbers like “Neon Lights” and Coldplay favourite “Computer Love” can sound quaint or even primitive in comparison with more recent iterations of electro pop. This is not because they’re not great songs—a good melody is timeless, after all—but because the technology employed in their creation was still in its infancy. Live, however, they sounded full and massive, and the visual aspect of the show was equally epic in proportion.
Kraftwerk has been using versions of some of these graphics for years, but they were still pretty spectacular. During “Radioactivity”, images of spinning atoms and black-and-yellow trefoil symbols drove home the chilling antinuclear message of the song, which has recently been updated with lyrics in Japanese and references to the Fukushima power-plant disaster. For “Autobahn”, we got behind the wheel in a digitally created version of that eponymous LP’s cover art come to life, a virtual freeway filled with Volkswagens and Mercedes-Benzes. It looked more than a little like a driver’s-ed video, but it was still fun, fun, fun. Ditto “Trans Europe Express”, which rendered the titular train in sleek white-on-black minimalism.
All of which more than made up for the fact that Hütter and company remained largely motionless and did nothing to acknowledge the presence of an audience until the very end, when each member took a solo of sorts and exited stage left with a bow.
Apart from his famously affectless singing, Hütter said only four words the whole night: “Good night. Auf wiedersehen.” For those of you whose German is a little rusty, auf wiedersehen means “Until we meet again.”
Here’s hoping that was a promise Kraftwerk intends to keep.