Part of the excitement for fans of live performances of any type—be it theater, athletics, or music—is the anticipation in advance of the event. When the performers are as legendary and reclusive as the German quartet Kraftwerk, one can count on that ballyhoo heightening considerably.
You can add in the fact that the Beatles of the Krautrock set—an act for whom such cult acts as Can and Neu! assumed the roles of the Rolling Stones and the Who in the early 1970s—had not visited Boston since 1981 (true devotees had the option of a 2013 pilgrimage to New York for a series of shows at the Museum of Modern Art), and it becomes even more obvious that this kind of thing doesn’t happen every Saturday night in the Hub.
On this limited outing, there would be a mere 12 dates, including shows in such virginal territory as Nashville and Calgary; there were no New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago performances. Toss in the mystery of a mostly-unknown 3D component and you have the type of electric atmosphere that was palpable outside a sold-out Wang Theatre on Saturday evening. As one fan commented, “I waited 35 years for this.”
Having been alerted that the performance would be begin at eight o’clock “sharp”—no surprise given Kraftwerk’s penchant for an often stereotypical Teutonic precision—most of this widely varied audience was seated when the curtain rose. The site was a familiar one to hardcore fans of these techno-music pioneers: four straight-backed performers (on this occasion outfitted in matching black jumpsuits that were equally skeletal and mechanical) positioned behind modernized music stands, each identically lit up and shaped in the form of a letter “T.” The result was akin to a space-age television game show: all equal, all without emotion.
As the 1981 track “Numbers” shifted into play, so did the remarkable 3D presentation with numbers floating out and toward an assemblage outfitted with Kraftwerk-specific 3D glasses. Glancing about the opulent theatre at a capacity crowd, all smiling behind their cardboard-framed white glasses, gave one the impression of traveling back in time to the movie houses of the 1950s. The dichotomy of this spectacle with the beats and synths driving the music in a decidedly futuristic fashion provided a wonderful juxtaposition.
From the band’s very start, Kraftwerk has taken a determined and focused approach to the future of music, incorporating technology in ways that had never been explored before. While this journey may have begun for former Dusseldorf schoolmates Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider in 1970 (only Hutter remains as a live performer from the band’s original foursome), there was nothing about the two-plus-hour performance that sounded at all dated. Selections such as “Computer World” and “Pocket Calculator” playfully poked fun at the band’s years or origin with 3D projections of iconic 1970s computer monitors and bulky personal calculators directed at the crowd, but the sturdy bass lines and throbbing beats were as ageless as Dorian Gray.
To the quartet’s tasteful credit, Kraftwerk never allowed the riveting 3D production to distract from the presentation of its remarkably impressive catalog. “Spacelab” flashed a wonderful satellite-type vehicle in all its realistic glory, but the moment that grabbed the crowd and elicited both cheers and giggles was when, after identifying Boston from above, a flying-saucer-shaped vessel was landed in front of a Google Street View of the Wang. The rapid accelerations and deft musical maneuvers of “Autobahn” were matched by a visual simulation of animated automobiles (primarily Volkswagens and Mercedes, naturally) racing along the legendary stretch of road. The simultaneous effect was a spectacularly enjoyable innovation.
Long-time fans are well-acquainted with the group’s love of the bicycle, admittedly an interesting passion for a group of humans so adamantly in touch with their “robot selves,” but an acknowledgment of their internal paradoxes, one must suppose. In any case, the band did a splendid job of segueing from “Tour De France 1983,” colored by vintage black and white images of their beloved race, with “Tour De France 2003” as both music and visuals moved in an exciting new direction. Likewise, the set-ending “Trans-Europe Express” was gorgeous for the minimal animated black and white railway visual accompaniment to the bracing and racing sound of the title track to the band’s groundbreaking 1977 album.
A term like “groundbreaking” is not one to be thrown around with abandon; however, very few acts can count such a diverse roster of artists claiming a debt of influence as Kraftwerk can. Peers as varied as David Bowie—who named his Heroes album track “V-2 Schneider” for departing founder Florian Schneider—and Blondie—who admitted its enormous hit “Heart Of Glass” was transformed from reggae to disco under the influence of Kraftwerk—sing their praises. More contemporary acts from U2 to Daft Punk hold the band in remarkably high esteem, and it can be argued that modern techno was conceived by Detroit’s Belleville Three, who combined the funk of the band’s own home environment with the acknowledged influence of Kraftwerk’s metronome repetition.
Kraftwerk would eventually repay the favor, but only after allowing the members’ robot alter egos to take a bow during the suitable first encore selection, “The Robots.” Replaced by mechanized versions of themselves, the effect was somehow both creepy and poignant as the robots sought to make a connection with their audience.
This made the more human side of Kraftwerk, swaying and tapping their feet more obviously than they had throughout the entire evening when they returned for the second encore, even more endearing. They shouted out Detroit with “Planet Of Visions,” and then, as each member took a bow and departed during “Musique Non Stop,” it became abundantly clear that each of these robots had big hearts after all. Hutter’s departing “Auf Wiedersehen”—the only words spoken from the stage all night—simply confirmed it.