Monday, April 07, 2014

The legend that is Kraftwerk @ the 9:30 Club

As I get older, I branch out musically.  I've always considered myself a "smart listener" when it comes to music, at least in the particular music interests that I have.  As a kid, I listened to the classics ranging from The Who to the Dead Kennedys.  As I prepared myself for college I even remembered being a bit geeky and reading the Rolling Stones "college charts", consciously seeking out some of them to "prepare" for my next level of listening tastes.  As time has moved on, I like to think I have turned into a pretty good researcher of music, especially being a DJ on WRIR.  Take the band Jesus Lizard, for instance.  I would not only get anything I could by them, but I would try and find stuff from their previous bands, Scratch Acid as an example.  It was just my way of being thorough with the music I liked.

These past few years I have really jumped into the entire "kraut rock" movement.  It all started with a sweet little compilation I picked up called Deutsche Elektronische Musik on the Soul Jazz label.  It is a pretty well represented (sans KW) sampling of the sounds that were happening with some really informative liners notes that discuss the history of the movement and how it stemmed as far back as post WWII.

Then the record collecting began.

Anytime I could pick up something from Can or Neu or Kraftwerk at the record stores, I would.  The sound is so good on vinyl, particularly Kraftwerk; you can really hear the nuances in the grooves. Of course, I remember Kraftwerk from my youth,  the Computer World album, being their most accessible and popular during the 1980s.  They sounded a lot like all those other 80s bands to me back in my youth.  It was only when I got older that I realized the significance of them.

It was in January of this year that I learned that they would be touring the U.S.  On Friday, April 4th they were going to be playing in D.C. at the 9:30 Club.  I needed to go.  I was lucky enough to land tickets for the show that sold out in an hour.  (They then made a second show.)

Kraftwerk has always been a band of simple meaning and design, and brilliant in doing so.  A few years ago, they did a legendary performance at MoMa, which I think may have spawned this brief tour.  They have sporadically toured in the last decade or so, even releasing a highly sought live album as well as the Tour de France album, which was their first studio record since the 1980s.

How often do you have the opportunity to see such a legendary and important band?  These days, with tours like these from the likes of acts such as the Simple Minds, Psychedelic Furs or PiL or anyone that has been in the "business" for so long, then out of circulation for a comeback tour, they are just dry humping the cash cow. The Kraftwerk show was absolutely not the case.

This show was performance art.

My friend Jeff and I arrived at the club around 5:30 with the doors opening at 6, the show at 7.  As we prepared to get in line, Jeff saw a couple of friends that were standing in a line to get to the downstairs bar for some reason.  They told us they were letting in the first 30 or so downstairs at the bar for 25% off drinks and food, and that we would be let in first once the doors open.  We enjoyed a beverage, promptly handed our souvenir 3-D glasses (YES!) then led upstairs to the venue. What a stroke of tremendous luck!

I knew I wanted to be fairly close to the stage, not only for the sound and 3-D visual spectacle but also to be a fan boy and closer to the band.  As show time approached, it got sold-out show kind of crowded.  People were getting just as anxious as I, some even wearing their glasses as soon and they came in.  Then there was a burbling of electronic bed music; much different from the weird Detroit Soul the club had been playing previously.  It was go time.

The four members, donning Tron-like bodysuits, walked out in proper order to their electric podiums. Let the Deutsche Elektronische Musik sermon begin!  The crowded went nuts as they opened with their most popular U.S. hit, The Robots. As the members of the group pensively looked to their pulpits, making sure the sequencing was in order and the keys played properly, behind them the spectacle of very simple, basic and brilliantly designed 3-D animation began.  It was utterly mystifying and incredible as we were repeatedly wowed; robot arms reaching out over us, space ships flying into our eyes, numbers and languages pushing over our heads, hovering around Metropolis cities or even taking a ride in a VW bug on the Autobahn.

They played one or two songs from nearly every album (not including the 1st two, which were less electronically based) and usually updated them with new passages or directions in the mix.  The digital projections matched what they were playing on their keyboards and it helped put us entirely in their 3-D world; the sound of cars honking on the highway, trains flying past us, radioactivity.  It was a delightfully immersive experience.

The Play list, clocking in at over two hours, asterisk were my favorite moments, though the entire thing was sonically delicious!
  1. Metropolis 

What I find intriguing about a band that has been doing music for 40+ years, is that Kraftwerk was a uniquely futuristic band during its day.  Electronic, forward thinking, ground-breaking and mysterious.  As their time came and went with songs like "Computer Love", "Radio-Activity" or "Numbers", now 25 years old, their lyrics are timeless.  They are to the point observations about our human culture that cross all boundaries of language.  Hearing them that evening, and today, they STILL sound unique and future-istic. The music is still vibrant and relevant, even if done by four strange Germans with grey hair.  Masters of electronic sound and vision.

This Kraftwerk show was one of the best and most rewarding I have ever seen.  It goes right up there with the Jello Biafra show at the Canal Club playing DKs covers in 2010, with seeing Alice Donut and Nomeanso in '93 at the Black Cat, with Polysics two years in a  row in D.C., Guitar Wolf at Kingdom last year.  You only have a few handful of shows in your life that are the best, and for me this was one of them.

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