As fans filtered into the Riviera on Thursday for a sold-out Kraftwerk concert, they were handed cardboard 3-D glasses. Followers of the group – so revered for its ahead-of-its-time music and image – might’ve expected something a little more high-tech. A space suit, perhaps?
But in many ways the cheap accessory aptly summarized the German quartet’s aesthetic: a merger of futurism and nostalgia, the avant-garde and bubblegum.
The group helped invent electronic pop music in the 1970s, and sowed seeds for hip-hop, disco, house and techno. Its embrace of machines was more a product of vision than limitation; cofounder Ralf Hutter, the sole original member on stage, was a classically trained musician who started Kraftwerk as an experimental rock band before embracing his inner robot.
The prevailing mood Thursday was a weird mix of melodic innocence, pulsing electro rhythms and tongue-in-cheek humor. The 3-D effects, in a world where video game and movie technology have trained viewers to expect nothing less than boundary-pushing spectacle, were something of a letdown if you were looking for the latest, most progressive eye candy. Instead, there was something almost quaint about the iconic images from Kraftwerk’s historic past: a VW being chased down by a Mercedes on the autobahn, fluorescent trans-European train tracks, rigid Teutonic mannequin-robots in their red shirts and black ties. There was one undeniably crowd-pleasing sequence during “Spacelab,” as a 3-D flying saucer landed beneath an image of the Riviera marquee.
The music needed no gimmicks to translate, though, a kind of synthetic soul that still has few equals.
That’s because Kraftwerk remains a solitary enterprise, based for decades in Dusseldorf. Its recorded output has slowed considerably, but its rare live performances remain events – in large measure because the group’s core recordings still sound very much of the time, if not ahead of it. The band’s music has undergone a digital overhaul, the warped warmth of the original analog creations replaced by a sharper, icier precision. Yet those catchy pop melodies – initially inspired by the Beach Boys – retain their innocence.
Though the surface textures may have been updated, the music remains true to the “Romantic realism” projected in the ‘70s, a merger of the everyday and the futuristic into a sometimes creepy, sometimes humorous, sometimes blissful New Eden hybrid.
Kraftwerk tried to redeem the faded charm of competitive cycling in the post-Lance Armstrong world with “Tour De France,” in which a bicyclist’s rhythmic breathing becomes the foundation for a sun-dappled cruise across an idyllic countryside, then morphed into the harsher thump of its 2003 remake. “Trans-Europe Express,” “Autobahn” and “The Man Machine” were hailed as the alternative pop hits they always were by the audience. And “Neon Lights” and “The Model” sounded wistful, as if longing for a past that is receding with each new technological advance.
The group formed around the same time as Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and occasionally its music is as troubled as the movie by technology’s impact on the planet. The sinister atmosphere of “Radioactivity” turned into a eulogy for the victims of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear power-plant disaster in Japan. And “Computer World” suggested that all those undulating digits will someday consume us all.
Yet there was something charmingly homespun and even reassuring about the way Hütter, Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz and Falk Grieffenhagen performed. The stage had an even more streamlined look than before; the open laptops of previous tours have given way to sleek desk consoles. Depending on the lighting, the fluorescent form-fitting jump suits worn by the quartet turned them into ominous androids or pale, middle-aged executives who just set down their briefcases after a long day at the Argonne laboratory.
Their solemn expressions and stiff gestures barely varied, right down to Hutter’s one-handed keyboard riffs. When they did break character – a brief exchange of glances, a twitch of Hutter’s right knee, a deep bow as they exited the stage – it was like the Kraftwerk equivalent of a rock drummer playing a solo with flaming mallets while swinging from a trapeze. They were human, after all, and kind of shy ones at that.
Every once in a while, Hutter would steal a glance at his adoring audience and crack a half-smile. It must’ve been hard to keep a straight face with all those glasses trained on him, the man-machine as 3-D icon.
Kraftwerk set list Thursday at the Riviera:
1. The Robots
2. Numbers/Computer World
3. It's More Fun to Compute/Home Computer
4. Computer Love
5. The Man Machine
7. The Model
8. Neon Lights
10. Tour de France
11. Tour de France 2003
13. Geiger Counter/Radioactivity
14. Ohm Sweet Ohm
15. Trans-Europe Express
16 Boing Boom Tschak/Techno Pop/Musique Non Stop
18. Planet of Visions