Regular freelance writer Wes Eichenwald was at the first of two Kraftwerk concerts on Friday at Bass Concert Hall. Here’s his report:
Judging from the enthusiastic, not-at-all-robotic response to Kraftwerk from the early show contingent at Bass Concert Hall, most of whom had to be amazed they were actually getting to see the electro-pop legends in the semi-human, man-machine flesh, you had to wonder why the group doesn’t play Austin more often (by our best guess, it was their second concert here in 40 years). The hip, tech-and-music-savvy, geek-friendly, art-smart crowd was a natural for the synthesized multimedia odes to computers, pocket calculators and robots, and leave it to the Fab Vier – especially bicycle-lovin’ bandleader Ralf Hütter – to rescue the romance of the Tour de France from the ashes in the very home of the disgraced Lance.
The multimedia spectacle began with the ushers handing out white paper 3D glasses, after which the band came out and played “Numbers,” with green numbers jumping out of the frame, vocodered voices chanting, synths pumping, and we were off; binary code never looked this good before. It wasn’t just music non-stop, it was old-school ‘80s computer graphics nonstop, but the visuals were a perfect match for the retro-future where Kraftwerk’s music lives. Never mind that it was like being in a techno dance club where everybody just sat down for two hours, the trance/mass hypnosis qualities of it all took over immediately, like a ride at Kraftwerk Disneyland.
The quartet of Kraftwerkers onstage at their individual podiums/laptops/control stations – what exactly they were doing at the consoles was never clear, but who cares – wore identical costumes seemingly inspired by glowing Excel spreadsheets. They moved as little as possible, and their interaction with the audience was limited to taking individual bows at the end and a “Goodbye! Auf Wiedersehen!” from Hütter. What, you expected more? Kraftwerk were always as much art project as band; it’s cold and distanced, and that’s the point. If you could ask Kraftwerk what it all means, they’d probably just wink – maybe – and suggest it meant whatever you wanted it to. With the exception of the definitely anti-nuclear “Radioactivity,” their songs about space travel, neon lights, airwaves, and our simultaneously exciting and scary coexistence with ever-evolving technology are just there, like your last selfie. Questioning it, they might say, makes no more sense than questioning the oxygen and hydrogen in the atmosphere.
“Trans-Europe Express” and an extended “Autobahn” were highlights, but the icing on the cake had to be the first encore, “The Robots,” where life-sized animatronic replicas of the Kraftwerkers stood at the podiums while giant 3D images of them simultaneously gestured, well, robotically to the enraptured audience. The ghost in the machine, as it turns out, was us all along. By the end, you felt like reclining, sighing and taking a long drag on an electronic cigarette.