Review and Photos by Tony BonyataIn the seven years since Kraftwerk last performed in Chicago a lot has changed in the world of music and technology - two mediums that this highly influential German electronic band forged together into one on their recordings during the '70s and '80s. Home computers are everywhere, music is now being heavily distributed through the Internet and the advent of ProTools recording software has made professional sounding studio recordings possible for anybody with a laptop and an electrical outlet. But when founders Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider first formed Kraftwerk in 1970 nobody was ready for the about-face this cold, synthetic, cybernetic music was to make in the world of guitar-driven rock & roll. Their music would go on to directly, and indirectly, influence techno, house, ambient, electronica and hip hop music throughout the following three decades.
Thirty-five years later (and 19 years since their last full-length studio album of new material, Electric Cafe) Ralf and Florian along with Henning Schmitz and Fritz Hilpert (both who have been working with the band since the departure of original percussionists Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos in the late ''80s) have scheduled a rare five-city U.S. tour in support of their newly released double live CD Maximum Minimum.
For their stop at the Riviera Theatre in Chicago the sold-out crowd was treated to well over two hours of highlights from Kraftwerk's illustrious career. Standing behind four personal laptop computers seated on four small keyboards and clad in matching crisp, black suits the quartet looked more like European stockbrokers giving a PowerPoint presentation than iconoclastic musicians performing a rock concert. In fact, other than the light tapping of their feet and nondescript finger work on their desktops the foursome didn't really appear to be even playing along with the music emitting from the house PA (In fact, with the heavily sequenced segments and preprogrammed beats it was impossible to decipher who was actually the percussionist of the group). Of course, with the focus being purposely misdirected towards the large video screen showing stunning video behind them along with the visually enticing color coordination of the stage lighting these four showroom dummies could have just as easily been checking their email or surfing HotGermanBabes.com all night instead of actually performing a concert.
But while many acts have been chastised in the past for miming to canned vocals and rhythms in concert (anybody remember Milli Vanilli?), Kraftwerk (the first group of musicians to originally give a human touch to cold steel... or, maybe even more appropriately, a cold, steely touch to the human psyche) has always been canonized for it. And their rabid audience last Saturday evening was no exception, as the packed house went crazy for lengthy favorites such as "Autobahn," "Trans Europe Express," "Music Non Stop" and, especially, during their four-song mini-set from their 1981 album Computer World, most notably during the techno-fuelled "Numbers" and the irresistible "Pocket Calculator," both of which were sung in not only English but Japanese as well.
Near the end of the show, when it appeared that these four stoic human beings, who barely moved for the majority of their performance, couldn't get any more robotic the curtain was raised to reveal four rather frightening robots in the their places. With long, spindly metal arms and legs, mannequin torsos and remarkably realistic looking heads that resembled each of the four band members, these mechanical monsters moved eerily in time behind their now closed laptops during the number "The Robots."
While it can be argued that this particular Kraftwerk tour (with just four aging well-dressed businessmen performing on their small laptop computers) is even less human than previous ones before them (when the band use to run around programming huge, brightly lit synthesizers on stage as well dancing in the front of the audience performing on modified pocket calculators), this beautiful juxtaposition of man mirroring machine - and vice versa - throughout last week's performance was an enlightening experience... even in this fast paced world of technology today.
Kraftwerk's 06/04/05 Chicago set list
The Man Machine
Planet of Visions
Tour de France
Trans Europe Express / Abzug / Metal on Metal
The Robots (with dancing robots)
Music Non Stop
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