It’s hard to say which department at the University of Minnesota should have been more pumped about Wednesday’s concert by Kraftwerk at Northrop Auditorium: Germanic Studies, Graphics and Visualization, Music, Computer Science or Electrical Engineering.
You could maybe add the student chapter of NORML, too (National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws). It was like an Atari-era video game nerd version of a Pink Floyd laser-light show.
The pioneering electronic band — which formed at a music college in Düsseldorf, Germany, in 1970, when computers and rock music were still worlds apart — arrived at the Minneapolis campus concert hall on their so-called 3-D Tour, which aims to be as innovative visually as the group has been musically. Any doubt about the tour’s name being literal vanished upon arrival, when concertgoers were handed square cardboard 3-D glasses at the door.
This was only Kraftwerk’s second Twin Cities concert since the quartet resumed touring sporadically in the late ’90s. In that time, the band’s reputation has grown exponentially via the explosion of electronic dance music and Kanye West’s and other hip-hop stars’ use of classic synthesizer sounds.
Watching four balding men stand stolidly in front of immobile keyboard banks may not sound like much of a match for Kanye’s bravado or a high-production EDM show in entertainment value, but Wednesday’s 2¼-hour set was surprisingly — sometimes even ridiculously — fun.
It opened with the eerie green glow of old-school computer text scrolling behind the screen in the 1981-era tune “Numbers.”
The high points of the set related directly to those uncanny visual-to-musical matchups. During the climactic “Tour de France” suite deep into the set for instance, the pace of the music was perfectly paired with old black-and-white footage of bicyclists pedaling along steadily and then manically. And “Autobahn” featured vintage video graphics of an even more vintage cars rolling down the highway to seemingly nowhere.
Thematically, the concert played off the constantly moving concept of how technology and the future will impact and interact with mankind. There were songs about man vs. machine, man as machine, machines becoming men and even one titled “The Man-Machine.”
The newly refurbished Northrop’s acoustics sounded computer-perfect but — unlike Kraftwerk’s last local show at Myth megaclub in 2008 — the room did not allow for dancing.
That actually may seem antithetical at an electronic music performance, but added to the wow factor here, as the audience sat still and hypnotically absorbed the performance.
The first of two encores really flipped the show on end. As the familiar bleeps and whirs of the 1978 hit “The Robots” started up, the stage curtain opened to find the band members replaced by actual, mannequin-like robots dressed in Kraftwerk’s old-school red shirt, blue-tie attire. Thus, even the “live” performance somehow became a machine in the end — and the audience had a very human, ecstatic response.
See a photo gallery from the concert at startribune.com/variety/music