Witnessing these electronic music originators’ first New York show in more than 17 years was a lot like seeing Robert Johnson or John Coltrane rise from the dead to scare the hell out of high-profile, modern day note wranglers masquerading as “the real thing” in blues and jazz.
For two full hours, the group — led by fiftysomething original members Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider — set about showing third generation electro boys and synth girls that they’re still capable of pushing further into the sonic future than any of the competition. An opening medley of “Numbers” and “Computer World” (tracks that made Kraftwerk a prime source material for a generation of hip hop producers) may have evoked nostalgia for some in the overcrowded house, but the musicians didn’t acknowledge it.
In fact, in keeping with the theme of the terrifyingly futuristic “Man Machine,” they acknowledged virtually nothing, letting the waves of sound — and an incredibly precise four screen video presentation that alternated computer graphics, lyric chyrons and hypnotically repetitive film clips — do all the talking.
While the group performed no new material, each of the older hits performed was remade and remodeled, not to the point of unrecognizability, but with a clearly modern purview. That meant adding gnashing sound effects to a throbbing, prolonged “Autobahn,” redoubling the eerie synth lines of “Radioactivity” and further chilling the icy cyber sexuality of the prescient “The Model.”
A first encore of “Pocket Calculator” was certainly smile inducing, but it was in the remaining curtain calls that Kraftwerk really upped the ante. The opening notes to “We Are the Robots” wafted forth from a bare stage, but the proscenium was soon descended upon by actual robots — an update of the spotlight shy Ralf & Florian’s bygone threat to send holographic doubles on tour in their place.
The final reappearance, however, was the most gripping, with the foursome, newly outfitted in suits trimmed in glowing reflective tape, allowing glimpses of humanity to seep through the medley of “Boing Boom Tschak” and a glorious “Music Non Stop.” As the latter song drew to a close, Florian Schneider closed his eyes in ecstasy, satisfied that Kraftwerk’s legacy was not only safe, but stronger than ever.