Amazing Kraftwerk hits 'evolve' button, moves ahead


June 6, 2005


Thirty-seven years after its founding members began making music together, Kraftwerk is not only one of the rare iconic rock acts that remains a vital and groundbreaking force, it continues to put on a show unlike any other in popular music.

The band's driving forces, Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider, have completed the transformation from analog to digital that they struggled with for much of the last two decades. On a technical level, the quartet, completed by Henning Schmitz and Fritz Hilpert, is now very different. When the German band last performed at the Riviera Theatre in 1998, it used many of the hulking machines that comprise its famous Kling-Klang Studio in Dusseldorf, creating a stage set that looked like the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

During their show Saturday, the four operators of the fabled "Man-Machine" stood before relatively small and simple work stations, each with a laptop computer, and either a small MIDI keyboard or another mysterious electronic controller.

The black-suited gurus of electronic music were even less animated this time than they've been in the past. Digital advances make it possible for them to generate more sound by turning fewer knobs and pressing fewer keys. Economy of motion remains a sacred value for these stone-faced legends. They even dropped their one moment of human interaction during "Pocket Calculator." During that tune, they used to let fans depress "the special key [that] plays a little melody." This time, they stayed glued to their machines.

Some critics have joked about the seemingly contradictory notion of these musicians touring in support of a new live album, "Minimum-Maximum," when they've spent their artistic lives trying to eliminate human imperfections and morph into musical robots. (And yes, the robots themselves did appear during the second of three encores.)

But when I spoke to Hutter several weeks ago, he said the live show is different every night, with fans and the venue affecting each performance, and the songs remaining subject to spur-of-the-moment changes and bursts of inspiration.

So Kraftwerk is a jam band, I asked? "Yes, in a way," he replied, with famously dry humor. That's more truth than exaggeration.

Despite the amazing technology, which included a mesmerizing psychedelic video assault in sync with the throbbing electronic rhythms, the show at the Riv remained overwhelmingly visceral and surprisingly organic.

To be sure, the newer material that comprised about half of the set -- songs such as "Elektrokardiogramm," "Aero Dynamik" and "Vitamin" from 2003's "Tour de France Soundtracks," their last album of new material -- has more in common with modern techno than their classic electronic pop songs, which boast unforgettable melodies.

But those landmark hits -- "The Man-Machine," "Autobahn," "The Model," "Neon Lights," Radioactivity," "Trans-Europe Express" and "The Robots" -- continue to grow and evolve. At 58 years old, Hutter and Schneider still explore their music, challenging themselves and their audience and "jamming" in their own way, as thoroughly as Bob Dylan or Neil Young. And they were arguably more powerful in concert at the Riv than they have ever been.

Almost four decades into one of rock's most remarkable careers, Kraftwerk showed no signs that its creative dynamism might fade. Given technology's inevitable march, the "Man-Machine" may continue to thrill us in concert long after its creators are gone.