Jon Rollinson reviews Kraftwerk at the Royal Concert Hall, Nottingham
Tickets for Kraftwerk’s 2017 UK tour, the band’s first proper one since 2004, went on sale in September last year and sold out in minutes at all venues. In an unintentionally ironic twist, online buyers were given the added enjoyment of being asked to confirm that they weren’t robots in order to be successful.
This Wonka-like scramble for tickets was perhaps not surprising since most fans probably recognised that they were entering ‘last chance to see’ territory. The classic 1974-89 line up of Ralf Hütter, Florian Schneider, Karl Bartos and Wolfgang Flür, responsible for album gems Autobahn, Trans-Europa Express and The Man Machine amongst others, has long since traded in music-making for cycling, with vocalist Hütter being the only member of this quartet still performing live. For most fans, without his presence in the group at the very least, this would start to feel too much like a tribute act.
Performing live is a bit of a stretch when describing Kraftwerk on stage. The four members stand largely immobile behind synthesizers but do actually play them, despite occasional rumours to the contrary. In truth, given the nature of the music, it would be easy to broadcast recordings of tracks to an adoring auditorium, but, in reality, why would the 70-year-old Hütter bother which such a charade?
In the past, they’ve even gone so far as to remove the human component completely and allow four mobile mannequins to occupy the limelight. But here in Nottingham, and for the thirteen other UK nights, the four current members stand sentinel behind their keyboards, with the mannequins only making an appearance for an encore version of The Robots. They received a reception every bit as rapturous as the band members themselves.
The tickets promised that Kraftwerk would be onstage at 7.45pm prompt and, shockingly, they were fifteen minutes late. There is a joke to be made about Teutonic inefficiency there, but let’s put it down to the tardiness of the crowd filing into a sweltering Royal Concert Hall.
Four keyboards and their static operators do not usually make for a thrilling visual spectacle. Kraftwerk have countered this with a stunning 3D show, courtesy of their Kling Klang film offshoot, which distracts from the stillness on stage. The silky eeriness of the track Spacelab is a particular highlight as you glide slowly around the planet, are almost pierced by the satellite’s antenna and finally treated to a UFO landing directly outside the entrance to the Concert Hall. That went down extremely well with the Nottingham audience. At other times, numbers come flying outwards and cyclists speed across the auditorium.
At times it’s easy to forget that much of Kraftwerk’s greatest output dates from the 1970s, such is its obvious influence on today’s music, although it’s also clear that, live at least, there’s been an update for modern ears. The chest rattling bass notes are no doubt a nod towards the kind of club culture that has dominated electronic dance music for the last two decades.
It’s a sign of the strength of a band’s back catalogue that their most commercially successful number, The Model, number one in the UK in 1982, can be almost tossed aside. Hütter rattled through it, almost as if it was beneath him and this kind of light pop wasn’t really what Kraftwerk were all about. You suspect he’s probably right.
Hütter’s vocals occasionally falter: Neon Lights being one such example. This song was also cut disappointingly short. The Man Machine album version is a superb piece of layered synthesizer indulgence which, by its conclusion, creates an almost trance like wall of sound. It’s a thing of absolute beauty which deserved to be given the full treatment here. Perhaps they couldn’t wait to get stuck into Autobahn, whose 3-D 1970s Mercedes and VW Beetles cruising through idealised German countryside were a perfect accompaniment. This time, musical notes emanated from the ancient car speakers towards the audience.
Nineteen songs and two hours of audio-visual bombardment later, the evening drew to a close. Each member performed a short solo, leaving Hütter until last. With a brief wave and a clearly heartfelt auf Widersehen he took his leave. Will we see him again in the UK? Probably not. Will we see a band like Kraftwerk again? Not a chance.