Kraftwerk returns to hometown in 3-D spaceship


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By Catherine Hickley

BERLIN, Germany -- The four members of the pioneering electronic band Kraftwerk stand in a row on stage wearing black Spiderman-like suits with a white grid pattern, virtually motionless in front of their consoles, as though navigating a spaceship rather than performing a gig.

Kraftwerk is playing in its hometown of Dusseldorf for the first time in more than 20 years, in a hall at the K-20 art museum. On Thursday night, it was "The Man-Machine," one of eight concerts, each focusing on a different album. The band played a series in the same format at the Museum of Modern Art in New York last year and is performing sold-out shows at London's Tate Modern next month.

Visual fun comes from projections on the screen behind them. Audience members equipped with white 3-D specs gasped and ducked as a virtual spaceship plowed toward them during the track "Spacelab." In "Metropolis," stylized, anonymous, gridlike cityscapes devoid of people shift and turn in an intriguing dance.

Kraftwerk's popularity has endured; in fact, the band may even be more valued with hindsight. Tate Modern said its website was "overwhelmed by the phenomenal number of people attempting to access it simultaneously" to buy tickets for next month's concerts.

The tunes and lyrics are simple, the beats repetitive and the delivery deadpan, yet Kraftwerk's minimalist style has been cited by groups like Joy Division and Depeche Mode as an influence. The band's early use of synthesizers was quickly followed by others, and Kraftwerk is often viewed as a precursor to techno music. Just one founding member is still in the band: singer and songwriter Ralf Huetter.

Most of the audience was over 40. Several wore the red shirts with slim black ties featured on the album cover, a few over substantial, middle-aged paunches.

The 1978 album "Man-Machine" includes Kraftwerk's British No. 1 single, "The Model," and the catchy "Robots." After performing those tracks, the band ran through some of their other hits over two hours.

A Volkswagen Beetle with Dusseldorf number-plates, driver unseen, motors along an almost empty highway in an animated projection accompanying "Autobahn." The song strikes a nostalgic note as a retro-futuristic tribute to the automobile, good roads and German postwar industrial success.

"Radioactivity," warning of the dangers of nuclear power, sounds as topical as ever, particularly with the addition of Fukushima (and a caution in Japanese) to a list of incidents that includes Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. "Tour de France" pays homage to cycling, with heavy breathing and footage of old races (no mention of doping scandals).

The band left the stage one by one to "Music Non Stop," whose lyrics "synthetic electronic sounds/ industrial rhythms all around" are a fitting summary of the evening.

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