After seven straight nights of chilling live performances, Kraftwerk, the mysterious German electronica pioneer, will conclude its impossibly sold out eight-night stand at MoMA. The quartet (which currently features just one remaining original member, Ralf Hütter) has been playing, as it were, in MoMA's magnificent Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium, which boasts a soaring 110 feet high ceiling. Last night we finally weaseled our way in for the performance of Kraftwerk's 1991 remix album The Mix, and were delighted to find every inch of that giant room filled by Kraftwerk's impeccable sound system. And not even the blathering cell phone-camera ingrates could ruin it.
The last time Kraftwerk played NYC, it was 2005 at Hammerstein Ballroom, where the quartet took the audience on a dramatic audio/visual odyssey that some fondly recall as one of the best concerts ever (what they remember of it, anyway). This time around there's no hilarious interlude during which lifelike robots replace the humans in Kraftwerk, but the show hasn't changed all that much. The four stern Germans stand fixed in place behind illuminated podiums for the entire 110 minute show, pushing mysterious buttons on unseen devices. And they're still dressed in what appear to be unflattering wet suits embossed with a neon grid system, reminiscent of a futuristic vision presented in such '80s movies as TRON.
But unlike the Hammerstein Ballroom show, the privileged 450 spectators who enter MoMA for Kraftwerk are handed 3D glasses (the old cardboard kind—none of that oversized plastic IMAX crap), and the massive video projections behind the band feature a constant stream of somewhat retro 3D imagery. At times the 3D felt gratuitous—do you really care about pushing buttons on a calculator in 3D?—but in other songs it was used to great effect, immersing Kraftwerk in the middle of traffic on a computer-simulated expressway during Autobahn, for instance, and sending musical notes drifting out over the crowds' heads like drifting celestial bodies. If we knew the German word for eye-candy, we'd drop it now.
MoMA, it turns out, is a fitting venue for Kraftwerk, and not just because that stark, angular atrium seems to fit their cool Teutonic style. The museum setting underscores group's significance in the spectrum of music and technology—simply put, it's impossible to overstate Kraftwerk's influence on electronic music and even more mainstream rock. (See: Radiohead.) "After three-and-a-half decades of tech upgrades Kraftwerk probably sounds less futuristic than it did on first exposure," writes Jon Pareles in the NY Times. "That’s because Kraftwerk’s future became pop’s present. The group’s avant-garde ideas — making music inseparable from new technology, building songs from synthetic sounds and electronic rhythms, using repetition and robotic voices — have taken over much of mainstream pop."
At times, especially in songs like Kraftwerk's mid-'80s single "Techno Pop," the overly-synthesized orchestrations can tip over into cheesiness, evoking the overblown score of an old Miami Vice episode. But such heavy-handedness is the cost of Kraftwerk's ambitions, and it's easy to overlook alongside such mesmerizing songs as the oddly uplifting Man-Machine, or the gripping anti-nuclear bombshell Radioactivity, which features computer-generated lyrics rattling off the sites of history's worst nuclear disasters. Our only problem with Kraftwerk is that they need to play a NYC venue that more people squeeze get into. And their repertoire could also use a song with redolent German curse words about assholes who take flash photos during a Kraftwerk show.
If you can't find your way into tonight's final Kraftwerk show, there's the consolation prize of a special Kraftwerk visual & sound installation in PS1's Performance Dome, through May 14th.