Kraftwerk at Riviera Theatre, Chicago, 3/27/2014

Kraftwerk Riviera Theatre, Chicago, IL March 27, 2014

Ja, ja, ja, mach schnell mit der art things, huh? I must get back to Dancecentrum in Stuttgart in time to see Kraftwerk.

Baron von Wortzenberger (that quote's from a Simpsons episode, in case you didn't know) had it easy. For us American Kraftwerk fans, getting to the legendary German electronica group's serially infrequent shows can be a chore, especially for those of us in the South. The band has hit the States a handful of times in the last decade, but only ventured below the Mason-Dixon line once (to Miami in 2011) and never closer to Houston than Denver (in 2008). In fact, I don't know if they've ever played a gig in H-Town.

Lead singer/keyboardist Ralf Hütter is the sole remaining founding member of the group, and he's pushing 70, so when I heard they were playing the Riviera in Chicago, I said, "Fuck it," sold a bunch of plasma, and bought tickets for the show. And because I love you people so very much, I decided to review the show for Rocks Off.

We'll skip a lengthy intro. If you're not familiar with Kraftwerk, well, sorry about that. For while I freely admit the sound may not be everyone's cup of tea, their influence simply can't be denied. Everything from hip-hop to EDM, from Bowie to Daft Punk, owes much to that Dusseldorf sound.

Late March is technically spring in Chicago, not that you'd notice this time around. On the day of the show, I was treated to rain, 25-mph gusts off Lake Michigan, and snow on the ground. In other words, perfect weather for some cold, impersonal Krautrock.

The Riviera is on the city's north side (about two miles north of Wrigley Field), and holds roughly 2,500 people. For local comparison, think the old Maceba Theater without seats, or the House of Blues without the corporate miasma lingering over everything. Thursday's show sold out within hours, and it was a fairly tight squeeze inside, though not so much you couldn't access one of the venue's many bars.

If you wanted to, that is. Aside from the aroma of marijuana as someone sparked up at the beginning of the show, the Rivera's crowd was one of the least inebriated I'd seen at a concert in years, with bartenders standing idle for much of the show. Maybe that's owing to the nature of Kraftwerk's "Nerdlinger" fanbase, or maybe we're all just too damn old.

Review continues on the next page.

Uncharacteristically (for Germans, Hütter's no Axl Rose), the show started about 15 minutes late. The opening made up for it, as the band — Hütter, Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz, Falk Grieffenhagen — arrayed in matching TRON-style bodysuits, took position behind four identical consoles and launched into "The Robots" from 1978's flawless Man-Machine (which they'd end up playing in its entirety). For the ensuing two hours, the audience was treated to a crash course in some of the most seminal electronic music ever created: "Computer World," "The Model." "Autobahn," all 15 minutes of "Tour de France," etc. I was also thrilled to hear two of my personal favorites, "Radioactivity" and "Computer Love."

Lest we forget, the show was billed as a "3D concert," for which the audience was issued glasses at the door. The retro cardboard frames (with "Kraftwerk" written on the side, watch for them on eBay in the coming weeks) were in keeping with the rather primitive video element. Folks expecting cutting edge visuals were probably a bit put off by film clips that looked like they hadn't been updated since before German reunification. The biggest cheers were reserved for the UFO sequence (during "Spacelab"), as the craft landed in front of a Riviera marquee, even if the whole thing was reminiscent of Cosmos (Sagan's, not Tyson's).

And you probably won't see anything as distinctly German as Apple IIe-era graphics of a VW Bug and a Mercedes zipping along a computer generated highway. All that was missing was the Riviera serving sauerkraut.

And did I say their music was cold and impersonal? Nothing could be further from the truth. Even with the lack of audience interaction ("I think we played Chicago in '75" was the only line Hütter spoke all evening), there's palpable emotion in the band's work. "The Model" and "Radioactivity" are particularly engaging tracks, lushly arranged and layered. Kraftwerk remains relevant today because of this blend of futurism and soul, this sense that humanity can still be found amid the technology. existing in concert with it and not in spite of it. Computer love, indeed.

Not to get all heavy, or anything. They can still be goofballs, as the closing trifecta of "Boing Boom Tschak," "Techno Pop," and "Musique Non Stop" attests. They couldn't play all the faves (it would've been nice to hear "Pocket Calculator" and "Sex Object"), but it's hard to feel disappointment when you're hearing some of the greatest electronic music of all time. It was an immensely satisfying performance, and another musical bucket list item I can cross off the list.

And since the chances of Kraftwerk ever coming to Houston are slim bordering on anorexic, I'll consider myself lucky for that.

Personal Bias: It's more fun to compute.

The Crowd: Evenly mixed between old and hipster. I stood next to a woman who'd seen them in 1980 and her 20-something daughter.

Overheard in the Crowd: "Do you think they're really playing?" This was overheard mutliple times.

Random Notebook Dump: "Radioactivity = bad."

Review continues on the next page.

The Robots
Numbers / Computer World
It's More Fun to Compute / Home Computer
Computer Love
The Man Machine
The Model
Neon Lights
Geiger Counter / Radioactivity Ohm Sweet Ohm
Tour De France 1983
Tour de France 2003 (Étape 1)
Tour de France 2003 (Étape 2)
Tour de France 2003 (Étape 3)
Trans-Europe Express / Metal on Metal /Abzug Boing Boom Tschak / Techno Pop / Musique Non Stop

Aéro Dynamik
Planet of Visions


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Peter Vonder Haar writes movie reviews for the Houston Press and the occasional book. The first three novels in the "Clarke & Clarke Mysteries" - Lucky Town, Point Blank, and Empty Sky - are out now.
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