Kraftwerk graced the Midland with a retro, three-dimensional spectacle last night

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For a band scarcely (if ever) heard on the radio anymore, Kraftwerk quietly remains one of the world’s most influential bands. Beginning in the early 1970s, the band’s pioneering use of synthesizers, electronic beats and vocoder laid the groundwork for electronic music and hip-hop, influencing artists from David Bowie to Jay-Z. That music — especially for how foreign it must have sounded to audiences at the time — has aged well. In fact, much of the band’s material (despite being decades old) sounds contemporary, and in hearing it live, an audience can begin to surmise just how great of an impact that this band has had on all music genres.

Additionally, Kraftwerk has constructed a three-dimensional visual backdrop to accompany the music that has been featured at the Museum of Modern Art and the Tate Modern, among other institutions. For its first appearance in Kansas City in 40 years, the band put on a two-and-a-half-hour spectacle that was at times danceable and weird and still incredibly immersive and innovative.

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As audience members filed into the Midland, they were each given a set of paper 3D glasses. There was something delightfully retro about seeing a theater full of people wearing those white paper frames instead of the modern plastic recyclable variety.

The lights went down just after 8 p.m., and the spectacle began as the band played “Numbers.” The four band members stood behind neon-framed synthesizers that looked like something out of Tron. Vivid vintage computer green dot-matrix numbers filled the backdrop, cascading out towards the audience. The numbers rippling and swirling was such a simple, low-fi effect but still stunning. I looked around to see people smiling. This is Kraftwerk’s genius — taking the unusual, the simple and making you wonder why everyone is not doing this same thing. 

During the band’s computer medley of sorts (“Computer World,” “It’s More Fun to Compute/Home Computer”, “Computer Love”), the numbers were supplanted by giant graphics, including, yes, a very boxy computer that loomed massively over the band. During “Pocket Calculator,” a giant calculator hovered over the band, with a giant hand floating in to make calculations.

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The Kraftwerk’s extreme minimalism is intentional, of course, and it’s entirely appropriate considering the aesthetic that the band has long cultivated — one that pits man against machine as well as man together with machine in the future. With regard to machines, the performers (including founding member Ralf Hütter, who took singing duties) scarcely interacted. All remained stationed behind podiums, occasionally bobbing to the beat ever so slightly but never throwing a pounding fist out as you would see at EDM shows. That’s not the Kraftwerk way. 

The band is not without humor, however. During “Spacelab,” three-dimensional satellites and UFOs, with antennae reaching way out into the audience, geo-located Kansas City (it looked kind of like a Google Map). As the images of UFOs careened into the crowd, the audience gaped and gasped, laughing and enjoying the old-school effects. The UFO eventually landed downtown in front of the mural facing Truman Road. The audience applauded the UFO’s efforts. It did feel like something both out of the future and absolutely of the past, like a Pink Floyd laser-light show.

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From an artistic standpoint, the show was hugely successful — Kraftwerk, 45 years into its life as a band, is still creating something unique and entirely pleasurable. For “Autobahn”, the audience was treated to a ride alongside Volkswagens and Mercedes Benzes down a blissful stretch of German computer highway. The kitschy visuals alone were worth the price of admission. The song, though, like many Kraftwerk pieces, is interminably long, and at points, it meandered on long enough that it was easy to wonder whether the band really does need four members anymore, or if Hütter has just decided that four members just looks best onstage, clad in matching union suits. 

The one song that did display some musical virtuosity was “Tour de France,” which featured a keyboard breakdown that demonstrated each members’ musical chops, as vintage race footage streamed overhead, occasionally flecked with streaks of blue and red graphics. 

For the band’s encore, the audience was treated to an appearance by the Robots, animatronic men in suits first featured in a 1977 Kraftwerk video. The Robots haven’t changed much but still charmed the audience. Often throughout the set, it felt like many in the audience wanted to really get up and dance — but the performance almost didn’t permit for it. The members of Kraftwerk do not indulge much in the human side of their performances, and certainly do not beckon or talk to the audience to inspire interaction.

As the Robots left the stage and the band began its impressively lengthy encore, the polarizing nature of the band became apparent. The audience clamored for more, begging the band to keep playing. An usher walked past me, having lost hope the show would at last conclude. He sighed, “This is awful.” It was the funniest thing I’d heard all night — and about two and a half hours in, the show was beginning to push my limits as well.

Yet many in the audience could have stayed for another two hours. It was worth it for a once-in-a-lifetime experience with a band that arguably invented electronic music. 

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Setlist: 
Numbers
Computer World
It’s More Fun to Compute / Home Computer
Computer Love
Pocket Calculator
Metropolis
The Man-Machine
Spacelab
The Model
Neon Lights
Autobahn
Airwaves
Intermission / News
Geiger Counter
Radioactivity (Fukushima Version)
Electric Café
Tour de France 1983
Tour de France Étape 1
Tour de France Étape 2
Trans Europe Express / Metal on Metal / Abzug
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The Robots
———
Aéro Dynamik
Planet of Visions
Boing Boom Tschak
Techno Pop
Musique Non Stop 

Categories: Music