Walking about New York City on the grey morning of April 10, I couldn’t help but feel the same full-body trembles one might experience before boarding a rollercoaster. That may have been because KRAFTWERK had just arrived in town to play eight unprecedented, intimate concerts at the Museum of Modern Art. Each night would feature the German synth savants performing a full album in the museum atrium, followed by additional catalog selections and flanked with original 3D visuals.
Possessing a ticket to any of the shows (a rare US appearance for the band) came with a weight of survivor’s guilt. The intimate series, titled Retrospective 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 had sold out in February -- less than an hour after tickets became available online. Naturally, the resultant outrage produced an impressive lineup of viral videos, including Kraftwerk Ticket Blues and one of the most fitfully funny Hitler Reacts memes this writer has ever encountered. Walking up Sixth Avenue for Night 1’s performance of Autobahn, I wondered what kind of scene I would encounter at the doors of MoMA. Instagram-snapping VIP windbags? Old school Kraftwerk fans beating down Brooklyn hipsters for tickets, growling “we are the robots” through foaming jaws?
Thankfully, the crowd appeared to be a healthy mix of museum patrons, unassuming youngsters and veterans of Tribal Gathering 1997. The main lobby was dimmed, the only luminance coming from several LCD displays of the original Autobahn album cover, and a glass case which contained Kraftwerk’s animatronic robots. Upon flashing my ID, I was handed two items: a book of Kraftwerk album art, and a pair of 3D glasses, in a custom Autobahn slipcase. Things were looking promising.
As bar patrons sipped on Spaten pilsner (of course), I wandered upstairs to the Marron Atrium. The bare space was pitch dark, save for a silk upon which four familiar-looking computer stands were projected.
Here, the enormity of what I was about to witness began to sink in. After so many numbing nights of bass-driven, drop-centric electric throw downs in warehouses and self-congratulatory clubs, I’d somehow traced my way back to the pioneers responsible for the genre’s mainstream adoption. But would the familiar saw waves of Autobahn, a 1974 release, still sound fresh after more than three decades of aesthetic evolution and BPM changes?
In a words, yes.
After a “test run” of preset tones and syrupy, vocoded German, the silk dropped to reveal surviving Kraftwerk founder Ralf Hütter and band mates Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz and Stefan Prasse. Each man wore a glow-in-the-dark spacesuit, and stood solemnly behind a T-shaped computer stand, which could have contained anything from a Yamaha DX-7 to a pile of Lego bricks. With whatever lay at their disposal, Kraftwerk delved into a pulsing rendition of “The Robots,” electrifying the crowd. Hütter provided live vocals through a headset, as suited androids reached out to the crowd from a large display screen.
From there, it was onto “Autobahn,” realized in its original 22 minute form. The lulling synths were entrancing as ever, aided by a pitch perfect sound system that must have been tested for months in advance. Each note resonated brilliantly, filling the space with blissed-out ambience. Behind the band, an animated Autobahn sent trucks and VW beetles meandering through the Alps. The audience ate up every minute of it, in one of the most patient displays of admiration I have witnessed at any concert.
“Patient” now seems the right word in describing the night. After two beautifully meditative renditions of “Kometenmelodies 1 & 2,” “Mitternacht” and “Morgenspaziergang,” it was time to haul out the classics. Starting with a powerful “Radioactivity” that felt a bit too timely, the band cycled through decades of material, stopping on standouts like “The Model” and “Computer Love”. The night’s sensory highlight: a surprising, super-charged “Tour de France,” with glacial synths swelling in perfect rhythm with the heaving cyclists projected behind the band.
By the time show-closer “Musik Non Stop” came about, the crowd energy had gone from entrancement to euphoria. Here, once-still attendees broke out into fevered dance moves. Blazers came off, heels were removed and as the song’s climax neared, each Kraftwerk member left the stage one by one, killing their respective instruments as they took a bow. Eventually, only Hütter remained, backed by sampled drums and bass hiccoughs. “Good night,” were his sole words to the crowd as he departed to raucous applause and an audibly sincere “We love you!”
Upon exiting the MoMA, the only question was whether Kraftwerk could replicate this performance for seven more nights. But then, what could be more fittingly synthetic for Kraftwerk than the electronic duplication of a great concert? Kraftwerk may celebrate the machines, yet behind every processed patch is the same melodic mastery for which one might champion a more “organic” act like Neil Young or even Arcade Fire. Contrary to popular belief, acoustic is not always better and last Tuesday’s show served as the purest evidence.