Live: Kraftwerk perform The Man-Machine at MoMa

04/16/2012 11:33 AM |

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I attended night four of Kratwerk’s MoMa retrospective Friday night, a show built around their 1978 record The Man-Machine. It’s a set of songs that I would argue to anyone (and will, hold on) is the band’s very best work. The queue to enter was well-managed, crisp with Teutonic order. The glossy, bound commemorative materials and personal 3D glasses handed out in an album-sepecific sleeve were sleek and handsome. The concrete atrium space was roomy, not at all over-packed. Casual eavesdropping revealed a lot of actual Germans there, or at least people who knew how to properly pronounce “Spaten.” (Two kinds of German beer, and zero American, were available at the bar, another thorough touch). Jude Law’s, or maybe, as I’d prefer to believe, the Jude Law sex-bot from A.I.’s, pronunciation was impeccable. Everything was as perfectly high-art and bloodless as you might have hoped. Where the show exceeded its good-as-you-needed-it-to-be exactness was in the music itself.

“The Man-Machine” (partial)

Kraftwerk has been frontloading all of these shows from night to night with designated album tracks, and then moving into a chronologically ordered greatest hits set. Friday, we got all six tracks of The Man-Machine up front, but with a crucial order adjustment that swapped album-closer “The Man Machine” in for album-opener “The Robots.” The move provided an instant shock of excited motion. Whether a carryover from the semi-recent Jay-Z sampling, or whatever, “The Robots” has this perpetually modern pulse to it, a rhythmic progression that refuses to stale. This record found the band at the height of their pop songwriting. And not just in straightforward singles like “The Model.” Italo-disco, a sub-genre that’s still got contemporary resonance, was born here (and on the coke-dusted soundboards of Giorgio Moroder). When the show switched into its greatest hits portion, it felt like a well earned encore to the main thrust of the show. But as its length exceeded the first portion, the power drained a bit. The straight-line sprawl on their other records is a significant part of their point. But even stone classics like “Trans-Europe Express” or “Autobahn” extend on just a bit too close to forever. The Man-Machine stuff, on the other hand, is concise and immaculate. It was an easy lesson in why bands don’t start their concerts with all of their best material. The crowd was rowdy, in dancing spirit at the start and middle, a bit beat- and Spaten-drunk by the end. (“Computer Love” was cut from earlier set lists for time! Oh no!)

The 3D projections really do elevate the material, compensate for what is, by definition, four old guys (and one mysteriously young guy, hey nephew!) standing still. Similar effects are bound to become more common: at first for established bands who can afford the production cost, and subsequently for young bands as available technology keeps changing. Because in the age of instant-gratification YouTube uploads from half the crowd’s phones, of reproductions just decent enough to blunt the pain of your own absence from big events, what’s more valuable than a performance that loses everything when replicated by technology? Impressive and sort of hilariously funny that these guys, still projecting their primitive mechanical imagery, should be ahead of the curve yet again. The visuals, specifically tailored to each song, drew heavily from their late 30s by way of late 70s by way of the not-too-distant future aesthetic. The Captain EO tricks, the satellites poking out towards the crowd, simultaneously above, in front of, and behind the Tron-suited Herrs at their spaceship consoles, made it all more weird, immediate, vivid. The Modernist fonts of “The Man-Machine” given tangible depth, the black-and white fashion runway footage elevating “the Model,” the stark, recognizable skyscrapers of “Metropolis,” the, uh, neon lights of “Neon Lights,” were all exquisitely done, totally vital to the success of the experience. Though the songs were thrilling, and you couldn’t help but feel warm to the real live musicians standing in front of you. The film and graphic art was the show.

“Spacelab” (partial)

In the lobby, on the way out, it was worth a second look at the animatronic Kraftwerk mannequins in the in glass cases there, dressed in the glowing green Matrix-grid bodysuits that the band wore on stage. Moving a bit like the creepy Chuck E. Cheese band, they remained trapped at an eternal blank-faced, mid-20s peak. And I suppose that’s where the poignancy of the live show really hit. You can project yourself as robots with an immaculate commitment and play your songs with as much precision as ever, but we can all see the mortality creeping in just the same. (Ralf Hütter at this point, looks like the principal from Growing Pains, or to stick to the 00s, the guy who played Bernard on Lost.) On that front, Daft Punk have trumped their heroes. They convinced even more people that machines can be funky, yes, but beyond that they figured out how to convince people that man-machines could also be ageless. If they never see your faces, they can never prove you were human in the first place.

Setlist:

The Man-Machine
Spacelab
Metropolis
The Model
Neon Lights
The Robots
Autobahn
Radioactivity
Trans-Europe Express
Numbers
Computer World
Home Computer
Tour de France (1983) > Tour de France (2003)
Planet of Vision
Boing Boom Tschak
Techno Pop
Musique Non Stop