Kraftwerk brings an audio-visual spectacle to Vancouver

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      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.

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      17 Comments

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      ron

      Jul 4, 2014 at 2:20pm

      Attended out of mere curiosity, knowing only that they were the first electronic music band and the show would feature 3D video. The whole experience left me feeling bored and duped by the 4 old dudes in Tron uni-tards. The 3D graphics were laughably bad - yes, I get the retro-minimalist vibe they were going for, but some videos, especially, Autobahn dragged on and on, and the repetitive sound and video made me grind my teeth. Their music has not aged well, and sounds little better than a 1992 video game.
      Then again, I despise most techno, EDM, dubstep and whatever the hell button pushing music is called this week. Give me the VSO any day over this stuff. The emperor has no clothes.
      P.S. I saw Queen last week at Rogers Arena and was moved to tears and won't forget that performance. Kraftwerk has already pretty much disappeared from my memory.

      Willi

      Jul 4, 2014 at 2:53pm

      Hey ron, the lesson for you is: don't go to an electronic music concert if you are not into electronic music! And more important: don't rant if you are unable to appreciate this kind of music. I suppose you were one of those guys checking their phone every 5 minutes because of your attention span of, well, 5 minutes.
      I have seen Kraftwerk live 3 times before, the first time in 1971 on a cinema stage in a suburb of my hometown Cologne, 40 km from our rival city Duesseldorf, and then again in 1991 and in 2000. I can say without hesitation that yesterday's show was by far the best of the 4 Kraftwerk shows that I have seen, and I completely agree with John Lucas assessment of last night's show. Now go back to your Justin Bieber!

      not ron

      Jul 4, 2014 at 2:59pm

      Thank's for letting us know ron. Your disappointment gives me hope for the future.

      ron

      Jul 4, 2014 at 3:24pm

      Electronic music would have happened whether or not Kraftwerk ever existed -like discovering America... Kraftwerk and Columbus are bogus idols. The Kraftwerk show at the Queen Elizebeth theatre was terrible. The show was cold and emotionless - exactly what music is NOT supposed to be. Any student in a first year computer animation course could slap together better graphics than what was displayed. My date laughed hysterically at the person in front of us who was trying to rock out to little more than knob twiddling. What a joke.

      GTO

      Jul 4, 2014 at 3:53pm

      "Electronic music would have happened whether or not Kraftwerk ever existed."

      That's certainly an interesting new look at pioneering creativity. Oh, and also pretty dumb.

      Florian

      Jul 4, 2014 at 3:56pm

      "Give me the VSO any day over this stuff."

      Apples and oranges much?

      Florian

      Jul 4, 2014 at 3:59pm

      Oh, and laughing at someone who's enjoying the concert? Very mature. I guess your personal taste should be everyone's. That's how a child reasons.

      out at night

      Jul 4, 2014 at 4:10pm

      Hey nice review!

      Kraftwerk in many ways represent the dawn of the computer age, and their "out-dated" graphics (and music for that matter) belie a sophistication and wisdom beyond that of the average Ron. Their prescience in forecasting, if not leading the culture down the path of digital, virtual, uh, existence ('cuz that's what it is right, when people in large numbers spend many hours a day engaged with a screen/display, audio transmission/recording etc?). Kraftwerk's whole 'computer thing', that electronic sound they chose way back in the days Jimi Hendrix was still alive, that's the sound of the modern world, the mal de seicle, the zeitgeist, if you will. It's the sound of Ron's alienation and we can't blame Ron for rejecting a piece of art that celebrates a degree of soullessness (let's face it, right? Computers will, on balance soon suck the last ounces of genuine romance, chivalry, gameness and charm out of the world).

      But ron, when you say "The show was cold and emotionless - exactly what music is NOT supposed to be", you're so uncool. Who gets caught saying anything... is "exactly what music is NOT supposed to be"? Dude, music can be anything it wants to be, ask any member of the VSO (who I love to bits as much as you do!)

      ron

      Jul 4, 2014 at 4:33pm

      What a bunch of pretentious nerds! I upset your little cult. Sorry but there is no hidden meaning behind the bleeps, blurps and squeals of that crappy music. A bunch of experimental musicians found some new toys and ran with them. I went into the Kraftwerk concert with an open mind. They totally disappointed, especially compared to the great musical talents I have been enjoying lately.

      Willi

      Jul 4, 2014 at 7:01pm

      Those who call their music soulless or cold just don't get it; I find their melodies beautiful and full of emotion, you just have to listen! The visuals are done in that way because that's how they WANT to do them in order to project a specific atmosphere, but that went way past you, ron, and by the way, the great musical talents you have been enjoying would probably not exist without Kraftwerk! And hey,'out at night': computers are not doing anything to us! It's US who are making ourselves slaves to THEM - particularly to gadgets like smartphones. Are they saying to us: look at me every 5 minutes? It's always our own choice.

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