Wednesday night, Northrop auditorium was visited by legends, who may or may not be robots from a retro-future we’re still not advanced enough to fully understand. Or something like that. Electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk are on tour in 3-D, and while that may sound a little silly or pretentious or weird or a healthy mix of all three, it was perfectly suited to the bleeps, blorps, dots, loops, and clangs the band practically invented.
The German electronic music pioneers got the night underway with “Numbers,” the 3-D aspect — for which we’d all been given Kraftwerk-branded glasses — also began in earnest with flashing, 8-bit numbers that morphed into a breathing tapestry of random numbers in that sickly green glow of early computer monitors. The implications seemed to be clear: The band mixes digital and organic in order to ruminate on what it’s like to be (or maybe not be) human. The nearly two-and-a-half hour set made all the requisite stops along the way and in true Kraftwerk form, took its thumping, beautiful time getting there.
The band stood at four Tron-worthy, neon-outlined podiums for the entirety, none of them saying a word, save for founding member Ralf Hütter’s heavily vocoded voice while sing-speaking. The 3-D went into high gear for “The Man-Machine” and “Spacelab,” the latter featuring a map being shown with the exact location the band was in via Google Maps pin, resulting in a loud cheer from the audience, which then wrapped up as the 3-D screen showed a UFO landing on the lawn of the Northrop itself.
“The Model” continued with the stunning visuals, via what appeared to be clips from silent films or vaudeville. The band made a misstep with the visuals on “Autobahn” — which they played in truncated form, if you consider cutting about six minutes from a 22-minute-plus song truncated — which brought the album cover to life in a way, but also came off as a bit hokey and forced. The song itself, though, was as enjoyable as it always is.
“Radioactivity” also proved to be as relevant now as it was in 1975, with re-imagined/altered lyrics to include the Fukishima disaster, a further alteration from when they permanently altered it in 1986 to include Chernobyl. It’s those quiet, perfect strokes that make Kraftwerk approach timelessness. That song can be endlessly altered and added to, but the point will always be the same. “Electric Café” followed and the proper set wound up with what seemed to be the night’s best passage: a three-part, 25-minute rendition of “Tour De France,” complete with the étapes that have been more recently recorded that gave way to their massive, haunting “Trans-Europe Express” to close out the proper set.
However, the crowd had not anticipated what came next: The encore began with “The Robots,” and the band had literally been replaced with robots reminiscent of the band’s appearance on 1978’s The Man-Machine. They flailed, pointed, appeared to play the synthesizers in front of them, loomed over us in 3-D and generally looked like they might take over at any moment. It was short-lived, however, as the curtain drew closed once more and when it opened again, the band were back at their respective stations. It was a long second encore, but it’s probably safe to say nobody was ready to head for the exits just yet.
“Aéro Dynamik” began what was functionally the second encore and from there, the band seemed to push into that extra gear a little bit as “Planet of Visions,” “Boing Boom Tschak,” “Techno Pop,” and “Musique Non Stop” all at points arrived fully formed but each was revisited as the encore stretched out and got comfortable. Finally the band exited the stage one-by-one, bowing as they did so and the crowd gave a standing ovation. The standing O was telling: There aren’t very many robots I’m aware of that can conjure that sort of emotion from people at the end of their time together. Maybe Kraftwerk really are human after all.
Critic’s bias: Saying you don’t like Kraftwerk is like saying you don’t like music. They’ve influenced literally every band that came after them and should be spoken in the same breath with the Beatles, the Ramones, and the Clash.
On Wednesday I heard: a hook that was lifted (with permission) by Coldplay for their “Talk,” the inspiration for SNL’s “Sprockets” theme and tons of early hip-hop. They’re inescapable — you’ve heard them even if you think you haven’t.
The crowd: Skewed older but there were plenty of young people in attendance, again owing to the timeless quality of the music, most likely.
Overheard in the crowd: A hushed sense of awe from start to finish.
Notebook dump: This vintage Tour De France footage during “Tour De France” is kind of literal but it’s also legitimately amazing.
It’s More Fun to Compute/Home Computer
Radioactivity (Fukishima Version)
Tour De France 1983
Tour De France Étape 1
Tour De France Étape 2
Trans Europe Express
Planet of Visions
Boing Boom Tschak
Musique Non Stop