Kraftwerk, the band of robots whose Seventies work paved the way for Daft Punk (and pretty much all other electronic dance music on earth), felt vividly relevant last night during the debut Los Angeles performance of The Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 tour. At the prestigious Walt Disney Concert Hall, the pioneering Düsseldorf quartet kicked off the first eight entirely sold-out shows, each dedicated to playing one of their most groundbreaking albums in order — Autobahn (1974), Radio-Activity (1975), Trans Europe Express (1977), The Man-Machine (1978), Computer World (1981), Techno Pop (1986), The Mix (1991), and Tour de France (2003) — each accompanied by an ever-evolving 3-D multimedia show.
Walt Disney Concert Hall is more typically known for showcasing performances of classical works by, say, Mozart and Brahms — and Kraftwerk’s debut there felt like, on some level, a recital of the work of important modern composers, down to the obligatory individual bows in the spotlight at the end. This canonic setting is actually where Kraftwerk seems most comfortable of late — the Disney Hall shows build on a series of similar appearances started at New York’s Museum of Modern Art and continued at high-toned venues like London’s Tate Modern and the Sydney Opera House. It’s totally appropriate for Kraftwerk’s status as the primal ooze, the big bang, from which many of our current pop styles have evolved.
That contemporary relevance — exuded even on material dating back four decades — was thrillingly demonstrated at the Autobahn show: tweaking computers and synths behind glowing, light-rimmed podiums, Ralf Hütter (the band’s sole original member) and his cohorts wore gridded in Tron-like bodysuits as they dropped low-end booms that would make Skrillex hide his head in the bassbin with envy. They dropped the soaring synthesizer melodies from which all of EDM — from techno and trap to pop-trance — was spawned.
The concert, like the Autobahn album, commenced with the epic title track. Over its 22-plus minutes, bringing the whooshing velocity and industrial noises of automobile travel with the indelible melodies of Motown and the hooky harmonies of the Beach Boys. In the rarefied confines of the Disney Hall — with its absolutely perfect sound coming from all angles — the listener was placed into this Teutonic technological atmosphere immediately. That was emphasized by the 3-D graphics, which ranged from the wittily retro — “Autobahn” commenced with the image of a vintage Volkswagen Beetle receding into the horizon — to more digitally contemporary. Particularly stunning and lyrical was the mini-documentary on cycling that accompanied “Tour de France,” highlighting the connection anew between human and machine through the riders’ athletic prowess set to pulsing, insistent beats.
What proved particularly impressive were how Autobahn‘s more pastoral passages came across in this setting: You really felt not just the shock of the new of the era Kraftwerk ushered in, but also its impact on and interaction with the human element. That commentary on the human condition really is really the X factor that makes Kraftwerk distinct in music history: As much as its sounds are programmed and technology driven, at its core is the visceral cognitive dissonance that it’s made by real people, not robots. This is made clear by the fact that, in its essence, Kraftwerk makes body music, laden with rhythms that force you to move with them despite their irreverent stiffness.
So what’s new about a Kraftwerk show in 2014 — one that they’ve been continually refining on international stages for a couple years now? Well, no matter how many times you see them, it’s startling how futuristic their music still feels. These shows feel like a true cultural event: both an investigation and celebration into how we’ve let technology take over our lives as global citizens, as well as a supreme example of pop songwriting at its most innovative and minimal — as primal and direct as anything by the Ramones or Chuck Berry as it is technologically forward. Indeed, last night, Kraftwerk’s prescience wasn’t just sonic: The song “Radioactivity” was revised to include a mention of recent nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima to a list that included Hiroshima and Chernobyl. Who knew a synth-pop jam could be a protest anthem on the level of, say, Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War”? This evening — and the entire The Catalogue 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 experience — was just one more reminder that Kraftwerk was not only the height of avant-garde pop at the start of their career, but they still carry that frisson.