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
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