Kraftwerk - Electric Picnic, Stradbally, Ireland
Do I turn left or right? Do I cut the red wire or the blue wire? Which do I like best: Daddy or chips? Decisions, decisions..... At Ireland's Electric Picnic festival - due to a spectacular schedule clash - revellers were faced with a few biggies. Psychedelic geek pop or sleek electro pop? The Flaming Lips or Kraftwerk? Stay or go?
Those who chose our ageing Germanic cousins - probably working on the principle that they are more likely to die first and therefore won't get the chance again - make their way over to an already packed main tent; the circus-style setting largely at odds with the imposing curtains which mask any pre-show on-stage activity. The commanding presence, and charade, of the curtains gives the already theatrical spectacle a weight of expectation, this too laden down with the anticipation of the crowd to welcome one of the most iconic and pioneering acts in music history.
Having blazed an electronic trail from the mid 70's to mid 80's, Kraftwerk retreated to the safe environs of their Kling Klang studios in Düsseldorf after the release of Electric Café in 1986. Cycling accidents, sporadic live appearances, members bidding Auf Wiedersehen and back catalogue reworkings apart, they remained silent up until the turn of the millennium. The time away may have bared little fruit; however, the impact on their reputation was immeasurable, with virtually every person to pick up a synth declaring a debt of gratitude to Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider. Having re-emerged in late 1999 with the Expo 2000 EP, Kraftwerk - now augmented by Fritz Hilpert and Henning Schmitz - embarked on an extended period of relative creativity with an additional two albums produced in the interim. Clearly galvanised by this, the band arrive here, at the Electric Picnic festival, as part of a massive continent-straddling world tour.
The stage curtain slowly peels back to reveal four figures stood motionless: each in front of a suitcase-like box and dressed in full black suit, red shirt and black tie. Looking for all the world like a cross between an investment bankers’ board meeting and performance artists Gilbert and George, the band kicks off with the immaculate The Man Machine. After this set opener the gears are shifted to the newer material of Planet of Visions (a re-working of Expo 2000) and Tour De France Etape 2: less recognisable than their 70's/80's touchstones, they at least give the crowd a chance to catch a breath and take in the spectacle.
Despite the lack of interaction with the crowd - Kraftwerk remain virtually static for the entire performance - the show is visually spectacular: the four-piece are backed by an array of video screens, projecting heavily symbolic images designed to complement the themes of the songs. New members Hilpert and Schmitz are positioned centre stage, flanked by Schneider and Hutter to complete the ensemble; the latter occasionally raising his hand, as if to whisper a secret, to sing into microphone attached to his palm.
After a trot through the new numbers, Kraftwerk revisit their earlier work and launch into a string of ground-breaking classics. After the giddy jump-start and joyride of Autobahn, deafening applause greets The Model - perhaps their most recognisable anthem - its fresh shimmer is delivered with all the precision and archness that Kraftwerk possess, and cues the crowd into joyous karaoke mode.
A Government of Kraftwerk Health Warning on the cause and effects of nuclear waste precedes a superb re-interpretation of Radioactivity. The lyrics are updated - and reiterated through the video screens - to shock the message home as well as underline the fact that decades may have passed since its original release but our nuclear headache still remains.
Stealthily, the band glides into Numbers - complete with jackhammer rhythm - which, in the first display of their renowned sense of humour, trigger off tiny red lights that race up the guys' ties. The beautifully poised Computer World follows, before the proto-breakbeat express train of Trans Europe Express clatters by, leaving the station before the curtain unfurls and our journey's guides disembark.
The applause rattles round the cavernous tent and after a short silence strobe lights ignite and slash through the curtain, revealing four seemingly human shadows. The intro to The Robots kick-starts and the curtains open to reveal that the source of the shadows is not human but composed of four automatons resembling the quartet, stood in line as their replacements. The robots glide effortlessly through a series balletic manoeuvres while the soundtrack thunders all around. The crowd is in no doubt that these robots are not actually playing any instruments but, rather like knowing Father Christmas doesn't exist not ruining Christmas, it never hinders the exhibition and enjoyment. After this whizz through a retro-future Metropolis-inspired fantasy the curtain again draws the performance to a close.
A momentary pause soon ceases when the curtain opens yet again to reveal the return of the robots' human counterparts decked out in Tron-like neon grid-lit jumpsuits. Kraftwerk conclude their show with a sprint through the throbbing chrome-like trance of Aerodynamik and the bodypop-shock of Music Non Stop. One by one each member theatrically takes a bow - and the applause - on the stage before exiting. The music slowly gets pared down leaving an empty stage.
Less of a standard gig than many would expect, this was more of an audio / visual experience. It is aligned more with the calculated precision of a Damien Hirst art installation than the moshpit of your local Flea & Synthesizer and as such the crowd come away slightly bewildered but nonetheless satisfied. Why the lack of interaction or movement? Do they play any actual 'live' music on stage? What is inside those on-stage suitcases that pre-occupies them? Ever the enigma, Kraftwerk still pose more questions than answers. Even in the flesh, less than five yards away, they've never seemed so far away.
Picture by minniecooper from the Electric Picnic forums