Finding the balance between advances in modern technology and the excess that can come from them has always been at the center of the message that permeates the mysterious and yet mesmerizing music created by Kraftwerk, the godfathers of modern synthesizer music.
Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider formed the band back in 1969 in an attempt to give Germany a post-World War II musical identity that stretched beyond Wagner and the classics. The era of Krautrock as it would be known was led by groups like Kraftwerk, whose golden era group included Wolfgang Flur and Karl Bartos. In their music laboratory Kling-Klang Studios they developed the use of vocoders and other musical inventions.
While only Hütter now remains, and many others band members have filed through, the current lineup of Hutter, Fritz Hilpert, Henning Schmitz and Falk Grieffenhagen did an adequate job of giving the Orpheum Theatre a good sampling of Kraftwerk upon this its first ever Arizona show.
Backed by a floor-to-ceiling silver screen, The Kraftwerk quartet manned their stage stations like synth soldiers on some futuristic space ship with the near sold-out crowd as their passengers. Audience members received 3-D glasses with which to watch the projected performance. The Tron-like grid uniforms worn by the foursome allowed the ensuing light show to radiate themed colors off of them as each album-era of songs was covered during the two-hour show.
Hütter, who just turned 70, led the way as sole vocalist, unless you count the occasional pre-recorded vocals that dotted the set. And while there was not any audience interaction beyond hello and good-bye, the musical shock and awe was what fans had come to see.
First up was a four-pack from the 1981 album Computer World. “Numbers,” Computer World,” “Home Computer,” and “Computer Love” were delivered with the ethereal tones that permeated this record.
The musical tone and light show colors changed to a bright red as five of the six songs from the 1978 Man Machine kicked things into high gear. Here the sparseness of lyrics gave way to the reliance on robotic rhythms. Hütter’s use of robotic announcements in “Space Lab” came forth as the screen images transported the crowd into outer space as the colors turned to blue. In one instance the video footage had been customized for each tour stop. Last night, the video footage showed a space ship flying over The Valley and landing in front of the Orpheum itself. The crowd erupted giddy with the connection made from performer to fan.
The use of stark black-and-white architectural skyscrapers shapes underscored an image of the all-too powerful nature of the corporate world on “Metropolis,” as fast-paced syncopations filled the air.
Nostalgic runway '50s-era movie clips of females models filled the screen, much to the delight of the audience, during “The Model,” which was a U.S. hit on the dance club circuit in 1978 and then again in the UK in 1982 when it began to be used in many fashion runways.
The slower, moving, near-menacing beats of “Radioactivity” started the next wave of songs that came from the self-titled 1975 album, with yellow and red warning sign colors filling the screen. City names Chernobyl, Harrisburg, Sellafield and Hiroshima warned of the effects of man’s teetering on the brink of annihilation from nuclear catastrophe.
The visual for the band's classic “Autobahn” was the standard German highway, green hillsides and curvy highway appeared on screen. The travelling number, which is 20 minutes long, was cut in half to make way for the rest of the set list.
The mood swiftly changed to the more up-tempo, bass-laden Electric Café and Tour de France, with old homage footage of the famed French race cycling through in the background.
The title track to 1977 album Trans-Europe Express title track came next with a black screen and white tracks carrying the fabled rail system as a backdrop. Despite this album being considered by several major publications as one of the top 500 albums of all-time, the title-track was the only performed song from this album. That is, unless you include a snippet of “Metal on Metal,” which was more like the trailer to the aforementioned song.
As was the case when I saw this band 35 years ago, "The Robots" was the first encore song played. And, it was played completely via recording, as the focal point was the four replicants, each a robotic version of the four real performers. The projection of them on the screen as well as their somewhat campy stiff arm movements and head turns nonetheless got a roar from the crowd.
The curtain raised and the real band members continued with five more modern catalog songs from the Electric Café and Tour de France to round out the encore. The coolest of the finale songs was "Planet of Visions," which was a reworking of "Expo 2000" recorded on the band’s first-ever live album, Minimum-Maximum in 2005. The visual effects swam in a sea of green pulsating architectural designs and showcased elements of all the various synthesized highs, lows, beats, and rhythms from the band’s full repertoire, in one number.
The Crowd: A multi-cultural mix of young and old attended and all seemed to dig the music and 3-D projection effects. Both groups, upon my scan, were bopping their heads, and tapping their feet for most of the show.
Songs Not Played: “Pocket Calculator,” one of the more novelty-styled cuts from Computer World, was a known omission. Also, I would loved to have heard “Mitternacht,” a very foreboding number from Autobahn with electronic violins – great Halloween number.
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Personal Bias: While I like the sleeker look of the laptop-sized synthesizers the band played, the look of the older, heavy, and somewhat bulky keyboards made it look more powerful when I saw Kraftwerk on the Computer World tour back in 1981 at the Cleveland Agora. The attempt to give the audience a 3-D experience only half-worked as some songs’ visual counterpart videos just did not jump off the screen as 3-D images.
The Man Machine
Tour de France Tape One, Two and Three
Trans Europe Express
Metal On Metal
Planet of Visons
Music Non Stop