Some 22 years ago, I found myself at a friend's party on a Saturday night, and relaxed in the way that we usually did; by throwing on some music and sitting around having some drinks. That night, I decided to take it easy, as I had to bike my way home, and would more than likely encounter my parents, who were not fans of the underaged drinking scene. With that in mind, I stopped after a few drinks, and decided to finish out the evening's festivities with a glass of orange juice. I drank it down, hit the bathroom, chatted with a few friends for about 20 minutes, and then made my way to the door...where I froze. Something was definitely not right, and I wasn't sure what it was. A sinking feeling of dread slowly grew in my stomach as I tried to figure out where my head was at, but the more I concentrated, the more confused I got. Turning slowly back to the kitchen, I met the eye of a guy I knew to be a pretty habitual acidhead.
"Isn't it your birthday this weekend?" he asked.
"I think so." I replied.
"Happy Birthday." he said, winking at me with some kind of knowing look that would indicate a joke shared between two friends. Problem number one was, we weren't friends. Problem number two was that the joke involved him dropping some powerful blotter acid in my orange juice, and I was totally ill-prepared to spend the next 6 to 10 hours with my brain checking out and my pupils outgrowing my skull.
Panic set in. I fled the house. I forgot my bike. I wandered, getting progressively higher and more paranoid, trying to focus on the sidewalk under my feet instead of the subtle argyle patterns shimmering in the night sky. I got on a bus. I have no idea why. That lasted 5 minutes. I got off the bus and happened to run into a friend. I was too paranoid to tell him what was going on, although he probably would've helped me. I took off. Back to the house party, got my bike. Couldn't ride it. Walked it down the road, my whole body tweaked like an overtuned guitar string.
Getting ahold of myself but still incredibly fried, I ended up at a friend's house and knocked on the basement window where his room was. He let me into the house, but immediately looked VERY pissed that I was obviously stoned. He relaxed when I told him what had happened, and got me to sit down. Asked if he could get me anything to calm down, but I was already calming down, thanks to the safe area that the basement represented. He asked if I wanted some music on, I said sure, but had no idea what I wanted to hear. A minute later, music began playing; a strange rhythm of voices.
As the song progressed, the layers became more complex. The sound morphed and twisted. Partially my brain, mostly the song. It got more intense, sequenced drums, keys, and vocal samples layered in over and under, and I became totally caught up in it. I was relaxed, feeling the music, and wondering how anything that sounded both so primitive and so futuristic at the same time could exist. Why hadn't I heard anything like this before?
That was my introduction to Kraftwerk at 16 years old. And to this day, whenever I hear them, I get that same feeling, like some amateur chemical jockey overwhelmed by something insanely great, but completely beyond my comprehension. That's the feeling that I got this past weekend when I finally got the chance to see the latest incarnation of Kraftwerk at Toronto's Sony Centre for the Performing Arts, on one of the few stops of their 3D tour. When the curtain lifted, I could only marvel at the sparseness and simplicity of the stage setup; four identical equipment stands set up uniformly in front of the giant projection screen, each with a single man clad in some futuristic looking jumpsuit with white gridlines.
Some kind of vocoded speech, some analog whistles, bleeps, bloops, whatever, a heavy kick drum and a melodic synth line...and fifty-foot tall 3D projections of the dummies that represent the four members of the group, and The Robots began. I knew what to expect....sort of. I had seen the pictures from the previous shows, and a few youtube videos, but nothing could've prepared me for the hugeness of what I was seeing. Kicking into Numbers seamlessly, a barrage of matrix-like figures rained down the screen, 3D animation pumping across the screen to the rhythm. Founding member Ralf Hutter provided the vocals (though they were somewhat unfairly buried in the mix) courtesy of a headset mic run through a Vocoder, while the rest of the group provided an almost perfectly synchronized backdrop for his lead synth lines. Though the group themselves weren't exactly mobile, the combination of sound and engaging visuals kept things interesting, even when it was something subtle like the Spacelab backdrop zooming in on the Great Lakes and then rocketing across the ground to encounter what looked like an 8-bit CN Tower.
Slowing down for a trip down the Autobahn...the only real flaw in the show, as it seemed to go on forever, the projections of a VW Rabbit rolling down a winding highway, they segued into News, Airwaves, and then the highlight...Geiger Counter followed by Radioactivity, changing "Hiroshima" out for "Fukushima" and showing how relevant the almost forty year-old album still is today. This is where the audience really showed their appreciation, with sections of standing ovations as Ohm Sweet Ohm wound to a close.
With a whole lot of cycling footage providing the backdrop, they pumped out an impressive rendition of the Tour De France soundtracks before taking a ride on the Trans Europe Express. After finishing Metal on Metal/Abzug, I found myself almost literally flashing back when the next song opened with a familiar, "Boing. Boom-Tschak". As a collective shudder worked its way through the seats, I could tell I wasn't the only one impressed, and found myself wondering if anyone else had experienced a similar introduction to the song.
After some very (very) brief soloing by each member of the group, followed by a side-stage bow, Kraftwerk returned to the stage for a two-song encore featuring Aero-Dynamik and Planet of Visions, though these performances were unfortunately marred by a number of idiots who felt the need to have their picture taken in front of the group, their unnecessary flash photography ruining the atmosphere. The last bit of excitement was provided by a stage-crashing concertgoer who attempted to lay a big ol' hug on Hutter, which the 68 year-old man deftly dodged around as he exited Stage Left.
After a very respectable 2 hour peformance, I had managed to cross one of those semi-elusive bands off of the bucket list, thankful that they'd abandoned their last tour's convenience of touring with their laptops in favour of using real instruments. Thankfully, the Sony Centre provided a perfect environment to witness the spectacle...even if the chairs were a little constricting...and the sold-out crowd clearly agreed in the form of a 5-minute ovation at the show's conclusion. Four decades after they released Autobahn, Kraftwerk still put on an amazing show, seeming more innovative and relevant than most modern contenders.
If you find that Kraftwerk are coming to a town near you, do NOT miss it.