Sunday, September 27, 2015

Kraftwerk - Live 2015.09.25 (Late Show)

After selling out their originally scheduled show, Kraftwerk added a second show later in the same evening. There were conflicting reports as to whether this show sold out as well, but judging by the number of empty seats, it most likely did not.

Artist: Kraftwerk
Venue: Bass Concert Hall
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 25 September 2015 (Late Show)

Setlist:
01. Numbers
02. Computer World
03. It's More Fun to Compute → Home Computer
04. Computer Love
05. Pocket Calculator
06. The Man-Machine
07. Spacelab
08. The Model
09. Neon Lights
10. Autobahn
11. Airwaves
12. Intermission → News
13. Geiger Counter → Radioactivity
14. Ohm Sweet Ohm
15. Electric Café
16. Tour de France
17. Trans-Europe Express → Metal on Metal → Abzug

Encore 1:
18. The Robots

Encore 2:
19. Aéro Dynamik
20. Boing Boom Tschak → Techno Pop → Musique Non-Stop

This is a band I don't think I ever imagined I would get to see. Kraftwerk don't seem to tour very extensively, and they rarely ever tour the US. As far as I know, they've only performed full US tours twice before last year: in 1975 and 1981. (For details, see here.) Last year, they toured the world to promote their reissued Catalogue box set. This year, they've returned for more with a Kraftwerk in 3D tour. It seems logical to connect this recent burst of touring with the departure in 2008 of founding member Florian Schneider, who was known to be rather reclusive.

Initially, I was concerned that the 3D aspect was just going to be a gimmick, similar to the attempts of Hollywood to use the same idea to convince moviegoers to return to the theaters and pay extra. However, I'd long since known that Kraftwerk had taken to developing intricate visual experiences for their concerts to make up for their lack of traditional "stage presence". For a band bound to their keyboards and electronics (and also considered to be somewhat awkward and reserved), this is a wise strategy, and it certainly paid off.

Obviously, I was there for the music above all else, but I was very impressed by the visual component. The band started off with a bunch of songs from their Computer World album from 1981, which were enhanced by floating and pulsating numbers, various technological imagery, and other scenes clearly referencing the associated album artwork. The visuals served to further highlight the continuing relevance of many of the tracks: the references to big business and data security in "Computer World", the precursors to online dating presaged by "Computer Love", and the foreshadowing of smartphones in "Pocket Calculator".

Kraftwerk then proceeded to a section of songs from The Man-Machine (1978). "Spacelab" was particularly humorous, as the visuals were projected such that it appeared that the band members were manipulating a space ship orbiting Earth. As the song progressed, their ship appeared to be landing. One visual featured satellite imagery panning northwards from Mexico. The crowd understood what was happening and cheered when a red marker appeared at the geographic location of Austin. This changed to a street map of downtown Austin followed by photographs of the actual venue. Ultimately, their ship settled down right in front of the building!

The imagery for the classic "Autobahn" began with an display resembling the associated album cover, but then continued to display various vehicles driving about the (presumably German) countryside highway. Most of the visuals seemed to be an excuse to show off high-quality processing of reflected images on the chrome and mirrors of the cars. The song was rearranged to be substantially shorter than the full 23-minute album version, but it was perhaps a little longer than nine-minute version from The Mix.

The next segment featured a series of tracks from Radio-Activity, including several of the shorter, experimental sound collage pieces. This included the "Geiger Counter" intro to "Radioactivity" and the faux-radio announcements of "Intermission" and "News". The latter featured the spoken text floating backwards in space, and as more voices were overlaid, the text field became increasingly crowded. "Radioactivity" was adapted to include references to Sellafield and Fukushima, clearly highlighting the political nature of the song. (Kraftwerk have appeared at many anti-nuclear protest concerts.) I was also delighted by the odd choice of "Ohm Sweet Ohm", a ridiculous track that reveals their dry humor.

After continuing their waltz through their back catalog, the curtain fell on the stage briefly before lifting up for "The Robots". But instead of the band members, there were animatronic human figures moving about behind the synthesizers. The visuals featured complex computer-generated images of similar robot versions of the musicians. It was simultaneously hilarious, creepy, and fascinating, all of which was more than enough to distract from the fact that we were presumably hearing a taped version of the song.

The curtain fell again, and after a long pause, the (real) band finally reappeared for a final encore. "Aéro Dynamik" might not be a very exciting song, but the extended medley derived from the first side of Electric Café (1986) was a great way to end the night. While "Musique Non-Stop" fittingly continued to pulsate, the band members one by one walked to the edge of the stage, bowed, and departed. The programmed music continued for another moment before it reached its end.

While the visual experience of the show was exceptional and far better than I had expected, the musical component should not be overlooked or taken for granted, either. The band had rearranged and updated most of the songs, such as to make them immediately recognizable, yet different from album versions in subtle ways. Many songs were really medleys with elements from multiple songs or components that were restructured from the recorded versions. Their willingness to keep developing the songs made the show unpredictable in a thoroughly enjoyable fashion.

Furthermore, the lyrics were a blend of the German and English versions – along with the French, Russian, Spanish, and whatever else is heard in all versions of some songs. I honestly wasn't expecting the bilingualism, but I liked the effect, and as a German-speaker, it reminded me of the slight differences in translation required by setting lyrics to a melody. (For the sake of convenience, I have used the English or international titles throughout this article, although it would have been just as fair to use the German versions.)

I had high expectations for this show going into it, considering how influential this band has been upon musical history and myself, but Kraftwerk exceeded all of them. The sound quality and mix were pristine; you literally could not ask for better. The 3D visuals were great, and even if some were a little cheesy, their playfulness and wit made them well worth the while. I suppose one could always ask for new songs or (gasp!) a new album, but for a band that's been around over 45 years, they do a fairly good job of reinventing themselves and staying relevant as time goes on. It helps that they were so far ahead of their contemporaries in the first place.

Score: A

P.S. Big thanks to my dad, both for introducing me to this band eleven or twelve years ago and for flying into town to join me at this concert. Thanks also to my mom and Alyssa for excusing us for an evening!

P.P.S. For the setlist of the early show, see here. It is conspicuously similar with the exception of missing "Ohm Sweet Ohm" and "Electric Café" and trading "Aéro Dynamik" for "Planet of Visions". I think I got the better deal!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Godspeed You! Black Emperor / Xylouris White - Live 2015.09.14

Artist: Godspeed You! Black Emperor
Venue: Mohawk
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 14 September 2015
Opening Act: Xylouris White

Setlist:
1. Hope Drone
2. Peasantry or 'Light! Inside of Light!'
3. Lambs' Breath
4. Asunder, Sweet
5. Piss Crowns Are Trebled
6. [Unknown New Song]
7. Moya
8. [Unknown New Song]
9. The Sad Mafioso

I have a bad history with getting really excited about a band just after they've broken up. Take, for example, my fascination with The Smashing Pumpkins, who I became a fan of in 2001, less than a year after they'd split. Or consider Siouxsie & the Banshees, who I found out about just after their final reunion tour in 2002. Well, it turns out that I bought my first Godspeed You! Black Emperor album (actually, it was their EP) in 2004, about a year after they'd split up.

Sometimes, though, you get a second chance. Obviously, it's debatable whether The Smashing Pumpkins are quite as good the second time around, but at least when it comes to GY!BE, one could almost believe they didn't disappear for seven years. It's not that their two post-reunion albums don't show growth from Yanqui U.X.O. (2002), but it's more like they just needed a break and then decided to take the next logical step forward. Long gone are the days of vox populi spoken word segments and tracks with multiple individually named movements. The band still prefers lengthy works with large-scale dynamic buildups, but now there is even less focus on specific words and ideas and more of a sense of depth, imagery, and heaviness.

While the band has always expressed themselves well without words, seeing them live only proves the point further. The eight instrumental members sit or stand on stage in something of a circle with no vocal mics anywhere to be seen. They start and stop playing like they could do it even if they weren't deliberating facing each other and avoiding eye contact with the audience. There's one extra element that brings it all together: the ninth member, not be found on stage, but rather about five feet to the right of where I was standing on the first balcony. Karl Lemieux patiently manipulated three slide projectors and racks of bits of tape throughout then entire show, and it's his work (along with whomever else produced the images) that contextualizes the music and makes the implicit messages a little more, shall we say, explicit.

Initially, the slides were mostly just vague, scratchy scrawls with the occasional appearance of the word "hope", lending a name to the band's post-reunion regular opening drone. This may have gone on a little long, but it certainly set the mood for the subsequent performance of the entirety of the new album, Asunder, Sweet and Other Distress. Even though this rendition was not substantially different than the studio recording, it is still a powerful experience and certainly enhanced by the visual material, which shifted towards themes of urban decay and abandoned houses. (Certainly this wouldn't be a critique of unbridled American capitalism, would it!?)

This performance was also special for a historical reason. The band has been performing the material on this album since 2012, when it was known by fans as "Behemoth" due to appearing to be a single, continuous 45-minute work. It was at this same venue in that year that the band played one of the first versions of this work, and a high-quality (authorized!) fan recording widely circulated the following day. (See here; it's still freely available for streaming and download.)

The second half of the evening was a mix of very old favorites ("Moya" from the aforementioned Slow Riot for New Zerø Kanada EP and "The Sad Mafioso" from their debut album F♯ A♯ ∞) and two new songs, continuing their longstanding trend of debuting new material on the road years before releasing studio versions. The old songs were no surprise but great to witness live. "The Sad Mafioso" was extended substantially, building from the opening sparse, wayward guitar notes and droning soundscape to a massive, heavy, rocking beast.

The two new works were the highlight of the night: they were entirely unpredictable even while still working in the band's familiar modes. The first opened with pretty bass chords followed by chiming, interlocked guitars before expanding outward. Slides depicted unfinished or abandoned buildings and stock market tickers, seeming to indict senselessly destructive real estate speculation. The second started with folky violin and picked guitar patterns. It built up very slowly with a slow tempo, but eventually changed direction entirely with heavier guitars and a faster pace. It ultimately felt like a very long piece; recent concert recordings indicate it is about 22 minutes long. (See here or here, for example.) The slides for this piece mostly followed train tracks through a wooded countryside. The emotional message was less clear to me, but the music was good enough that I didn't mind.

There is only one other thing I can really criticize about the show: the mix. For the most part, it was as great as most shows I see at this venue or almost anywhere in Austin. However, the low end was overdone and a bit muddy. Mixing a band with two bassists, three guitarists, two drummers, and a violinist is probably a bit of a de facto challenge, although in practice the only part left to be desired was the distinction and clarity of the two bassists. I could usually hear one or the other, but rarely both. The resulting morass of low-end excess actually felt physically weighty and almost sickening. I had to give up my spot and sit down at one point because I couldn't take it. Now, I usually enjoy the physical element of live music (when I have appropriate ear protection at hand, of course!), but on this occasion I think there was a flaw in the sound design.

A word about the openers: I was interested in seeing this collaboration between Cretan lutenist George Xylouris and former Dirty Three drummer Jim White, but as the set times weren't posted until 6pm and the opener went on at 7:15pm, there was little I could do to see the full set. Of the 15 minutes I did see, it seemed like they held promise, but it's hard to say more than that. Xylouris' lute sounded way cooler than I would have expected, but his voice didn't do much for me. Meanwhile, White's drumming was maybe just a bit too unhinged. Perhaps I looked too closely, but I thought the timing wasn't always as sharp as I would've expected. Still, I wish I could've seen the whole thing.

Scores:
Godspeed You! Black Emperor: B+
Xylouris White: B-