The other night I saw a show which answered a question I’ve wondered about from time to time when listening to synth pop type music: can robots boogie?
For the most part I have avoided seeing synthsizer-only groups in live settings due to the frequent disappointment I’ve had realizing that many groups are simply triggering pre-programmed MIDI sequences and thus aren’t really “playing” their music live. What’s the point in that, I think — I’d rather listen to the studio recording in the comfort of my home if that is all that they’ll be doing.
That said, I was really pleased when a friend invited me along to see German synth pop pioneers Kraftwerk in concert. I was actually very happy with the concert and performance which (a) generally sounded real good (b) seemed to really be played and manipulated live in the moment by the four musicians on stage and (c) was surprisingly a lot of fun!
Before I get into a bit about the concert I want to discuss the really big visual deal about this show: it was the first “concert” I’ve ever seen presented in 3D! This probably wasn’t the first ever 3D concert (I think Primus did it it recently), this was probably one of the largest scale applications of the technology to date.
Now, 3D has had a dubious history in the movies, with some wonderful peaks and some awful valleys along the way. Likewise, 3D TV hasn’t faired particularly well from everything I’ve read over the years; like a lot of people, I don’t have a 3D-ready television as I’d just purchased my first Plasma TV just as 3D was being launched to the consumer market. 3D was issued too early in the big screen TV product life cycle…. way too early.
But I am not a 3D hater. I think 3D can be cool and I have enjoyed some of the 3D movies I have seen in the theater, from Up to the new Superman flick.
However, the notion of seeing a concert in 3D has greater appeal, especially for groups as visually oriented as Kraftwerk, which rely a lot on projected video to add a surreal dimension to their performance.
The process of experiencing 3D at the concert was similar to going to a movie — upon entry there were attendants handing out a nice commemorative packet which holds the 3D glasses. Thus even before the start of the show, the glasses made a great addition to the vibe of the show — I mean, it felt simultaneously neon 50s-retro and dark Devo-future-esque seeing all these people walking around with 3D glasses on!
The band wisely opened the show with their hit “Robots,” and there were really impressive scenes of the robotic version of the band doing what robots do: standing still and , slowly moving their heads and hands around into the crowd.
The night was very much filled with many of these trippy “Ooooohhhh… Ahhhhhh…..” kinds of moments as old school 8-bit style numerics and music notes flowed and pulsed around your head.
]]>In a concert environment, this all worked SO well, adding to the surreal flavor of their music and — at times — really hammering home the underlying message of this band. You see, despite Kraftwerk appearing to be a cold and heartless group of “man machines,” the takeaway message is actually one of the utmost in humanity, ironically driving home the opposite message home via the simplistic dance beats and robotic vocals. This is the warning voice of what life could become if we are not careful as a populous.
Themes about automation (“Robots,” “Computer World,” “Numbers”) and transportation (“Autobahn,” “Trans Europe Express,” “Tour de France”) abound, and there were also messages of serious environmentalism (“Radioactivity,” updated to encompass the Fukushima disaster).
The only thing I felt was missing from this concert was surround sound. My suspicion of why they didn’t add this obvious element was confirmed after the show when I chatted briefly with one of the sound people — in short, they simply didn’t do the surround sound in the Fox Theater (in Oakland, California) because of the nature of the more vertically aligned old time theater which was not really set up to handle that sort of thing. Apparently, in Los Angeles, they DID perform in surround sound, at the renown Walt Disney Concert Hall (there they performed each of the band’s eight entire albums over the course of a four night run!). I’m quite willing to bet that there will be a commemorative DVD (and hopefully Blu-ray) documenting the tour, and I would not be surprised if they disc is culled from those LA shows.
Hopefully it will be in surround sound… yes, I’ll be happy with that, thank you.
Even though the band does perform their instruments live as well as singing — and I spot-checked this several times during the show by trying to “Shazam” some of the songs on my iPhone; only once did it recognize a tune — I suspect that the variations from performance to performance will likely be minimal. I mean, Kraftwerk has a structure to its sound so it wasn’t like they were just stopping the sequences to allow one player a big solo, or engaging the audience in Springsteen like sing-a-longs. That said, a friend who is more familiar with their recordings than I proclaimed after the show that he felt Kraftwerk were almost a “Jam Band,” saying that the arrangements were wildly divergent from the studio recordings and that there was a lot of improvisation going on there. I was happy to hear this sort of comment although I have to admit I was not really noticing lots of “jamming” going on (in the Grateful Dead sense of the phrase).
Perhaps I was too busy immersed in the nifty animated visuals of bicycle races and old VWs and fashion models voguing in old black and white film news reels!
So, perhaps you are wondering whether I learned from this show whether robots could boogie? I think not and Kraftwerk underscored that fact — if they could, they wouldn’t bother being there on stage. Even with computers and synths and sequencing, there still needs to be a human touch to make music that connects with people on that deeper level.
Kraftwerk, filling the Fox Theater for three nights in a row, clearly has made that connection.
Nope. The robots haven’t taken over and they can’t quite get down and boogie… at least not just yet. Not without some human feeling musicians like Kraftwerk behind them.
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. www.smotroff.com Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer whose songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. www.ingdom.com Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he’s written: www.dialthemusical.com.