Kraftwerk Wednesday, April 23 Fillmore Auditorium
Kraftwerk? In 2008? In Denver, Colorado? The date – one of just four by the German quartet in a mini U.S. tour – was easily the most unusual booking of the season at the Fillmore Auditorium, and that likely contributed to the modest turnout: The Fillmore staff wound up curtaining off a section of the venue, the capacity of which is approximately 4,000, so that the group could play before a packed half-house. And yet those who attended were treated to an event that satisfied deeply even as it tweaked expectations. The performance was practically a parody of the average rock show, and a lot more entertaining than most examples of the genuine item.
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Humor is an often overlooked element of Kraftwerk’s presentation, in part because it’s put forward in such a deadpan manner: Lead singer Ralf Hütter makes Buster Keaton seem like Jerry Lewis in comparison. And yet the subtle comedy behind the concept was clear from the moment the curtains parted to reveal Hütter and his three compatriots, dressed in black, mock-futuristic uniforms that made them look like extras from the Senate sequence of The Phantom Menace. The garb emphasized their interchangeability, which was especially key on this night. According to a representative from Astralwerks, the act’s current label, Stefan Pfaffe filled in for co-founder Florian Schneider at the gig – not that anyone noticed. Only a handful of the attendees would have been able to tell the difference between contributors Fritz Hilbert and Henning Schmitz and, say, Jürgen Prochnow and Rutger Hauer, especially given the energetic imagery projected on the giant screen behind them.
The Kraftwerkers stood an equal distance apart in front of identical laptop-style devices, and as the propulsive rhythms of “Man Machine” compelled members of the audience to start bobbing heads and shifting hips, they remained virtually motionless aside from the occasional twitch of a hand or minor readjustment – and they held this stance throughout the lion’s share of the production. The discipline required by such stillness was as impressive in its own way as the boundless energy of a stage-diving punk, and it got funnier as it went along. When Hütter scratched an itch at one point, the movement was akin to the moment in Andy Warhol’s five-hour long movie Sleep when slumbering camera subject John Giorno briefly turns his head.
Granted, Hütter was occasionally required to sing on ditties such as “Computer World,” and when he did so, he cupped his hand around his headphone microphone in much the same way that Rudy Vallee warbled through a megaphone the better part of a century ago. But even when he did nothing, there was always plenty to see, thanks to the busy synchronized graphics, many of which displayed their fair share of wit, too. Note the flashing digits that counted along with “Numbers” and the retro illustration that popped up at the outset of “Autobahn” – a roadway empty aside from a Volkswagen and a Mercedes Benz. (Gotta love that German engineering.) Best of all, though, was the music itself, which seems strangely impervious to age. The first version of “Radioactivity” may have come along more than three decades ago, but its percolating electro-rhythms sound as vital as ever, inspiring the dreadlocked guy in front of me to do the robot even before “The Robots” began playing. As a bonus, the latter song boomed forth with actual robots in place of their human counterparts – and they proved to be infinitely more animated.
For an encore, the four musicians reemerged wearing suits covered with glowing green tracer lights – a staple of live sets in recent years. Then, against the backdrop of “Music Non Stop” – the Anglicized title of a track once known as “Musique Non Stop” – the performers left their podiums one at a time, walking to the side of the stage, bowing curtly and then disappearing as the beats continued. Had they actually triggered any of the sounds that had ricocheted around the Fillmore for the previous hour and a half? Or had they simply spent the time perusing Hammacher Schlemmer’s online catalog? That no one could say for certain added a final jolt of pleasure to the concert. Although anti-concert is more like it. -- Michael Roberts