Into the Pit: 156: Kraftwerk – Live at K20-Grabbe Halle Düsseldorf – 16-January 2013

There are your regular gigs, and then there are gigs that feel like something a little more special. Gigs that are worth going out of your way for.

1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8: 3-D – Die Mensch-Machine
Live at K20-Grabbe Halle, Düsseldorf
16-January 2013

Needless to say, this was one of those. I took the plunge on buying tickets for this show back in early November, and so was already sorted well before the Tate Modern sequence of the shows was announced. As it happened, my quick-thinking actually worked in our favour, as following the chaotic release of tickets by the Tate, we’d never have had the chance to see these electronic pioneers.

Yeah, ok, so it cost considerably more getting to Düsseldorf – and, as it happened, was something of an epic journey getting there thanks to heavy snowfall meaning trains were running late, connections were missed, etc – but it also meant a short but sweet visit to the (very cold!) host city and also Köln on the way back.

What was most interesting about this series of shows – and indeed those done last year in New York, and the forthcoming shows in London – are that they are all in modern art gallery spaces (in all cases in larger halls that these galleries have in one form or another). There are a few potential interpretations of this – the naysayer may say that this is a rather highbrow way at a retrospective for a band whose majority of their output was now released over thirty years ago. But I see it in another way, in that Kraftwerk’s precise, machine-tooled explorations of electronics and human interaction with technology are well deserving of exhibition, as it were, in galleries – after all, this was so enormously influential, and music is one form of art. And if any music should be exhibited in this form, Kraftwerk probably have a better case than almost anyone else.

Either way, the large gallery space was well set-up, and having received our pair as we entered the venue, as 2000 came around the lights went down, and there was the slightly curious sight of an entire venue awaiting the start of a gig all while wearing customised 3-D glasses. Those glasses – and the visuals that they were the reason for – also meant an unusually static crowd, as almost everyone was rooted to the spot in awe of the spectacle in front of them.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, with it being the night of the series based around Die Mensch-Machine, we got the whole album first, broadly in order, although the first and last tracks were swapped around – but that didn’t matter, as I felt I gained a whole new perspective on the entire album.

Spacelab was blissful trip through space, Das Modell was greeted like the monster hit it was (and, in hindsight perhaps, was the point where synthpop perfection was reached, before most other bands had even put their hand to it), while the melancholic, near-untreated vocals of Ralf Hütter on Neonlicht displayed a frail, delicate side to Kraftwerk’s ruthlessly machined sound that I don’t think I’ve ever quite noticed before. It was also one of the few songs where I simply closed my eyes for a while to enjoy the gorgeous sound reaching my ears – that was sensory joy enough.

Kraftwerk: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8: 3-D - Die Mensch-Machine: Düsseldorf: 16-Jan 2013But for me the title track and a certain signature track were the best of all. Both, of course, were instantly recognisable by their intros, Die Mensch-Machine based on the vocodered title refrain, and Die Roboten with /that/, yes, robotic synth motif that heralded it was greeted with whoops of joy (including from me). Both were even more extraordinary live than on CD – and the latter was one of the few songs the band even dared to mess around with, too, winding up the song to start with from a slow, drawn-out pace to something that bit quicker than might have been expected. No matter, though, the original core was still there, and it was brilliant.

Kraftwerk setlist:
Die Mensch-Machine
Das Modell
Die Roboter
Trans-Europa Express
Tour de France 1983
Tour de France 2003
Planet der Visionen
Boing Boom Tschak
Techno Pop
Musique Non Stop

Finished with Die Mensch-Machine after only thirty-five minutes, though, the next question was what on earth were they going to do next? The simple answer: just about everything else. But remarkably, there was even a strict structure here, in that “everything else” was done in chronological order! So our journey through the remaining hour and a half was appropriately begun by the starting of an engine, the beeping of a horn…and we were off down the Autobahn.

This was followed by a steady stream of basically the early evolution of electronic music, as Kraftwerk invented genre after genre, and every song played sounded pristine and new, the odd bit touched up here and there, but nothing was unrecognisable, and everything was flawless. Of the changes, one stood out – Radioaktivität has had another update (to take in Fukushima), and half of the lyrics are now in Japanese as a nod to the recent disaster.

Kraftwerk: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8: 3-D - Die Mensch-Machine: Düsseldorf: 16-Jan 2013But after this, it was difficult to pick highlights, as the whole thing was so damned good, and various songs cleverly bled into the next, and the closing trio from Techno Pop even shed new light for me on an album that has always been one I rarely reach for in their catalogue.

Even through the later material, the visuals were just as important as the sound. However, not all of the show’s visuals were in 3-D – which was no issue, and frankly made the moments where they did use it to the full even more jaw-dropping (Nummern saw all kinds of numbers thrown around the screen and “out” into the crowd, as it were, for example). As well as that, it wasn’t just visual 3-D – the whole show was in surround sound, too, which meant some clever sonic tricks too, which saw full use on Trans Europe Express and Tour de France in particular.

In fact, for a band that didn’t just look to the future in their heyday, they created it, this futuristic, technological tour de force of a show felt apt – not content with pushing the envelope musically now they are in the live environment once again too. Maybe they’re not going to release anything else new now (Ralf Hütter is now 66, mind), but with a show this brilliant, do they really need to? I could happily have seen this again and again – two hours of sheer electronic perfection, and perhaps the only gig I’ve ever attended where I couldn’t stop grinning through the whole thing.

This was my first gig of 2013, and we were musing post-gig walking through the elegant city of Düsseldorf back to our hotel exactly how this will be topped. Either, I’m in for an amazing year of gigs, or everything else is going to be even a little disappointing compared to this.

Either way, this was an experience worth all the time and money spent and more.

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