Sunday, October 30, 2022

Michael Rother / Chicks on Speed - Live 2022.10.26 Betonhalle, Silent Green, Berlin, Germany

I saw Michael Rother shortly before the pandemic at Synästhesie and thoroughly enjoyed his set, so I didn’t hesitate to buy a ticket to this show, especially since it was billed as “Michael Rother & Friends Celebrate 50 Years Of NEU!”, and it took place in a relatively new venue I’d been curious about since it opened. Silent Green is a cultural space in a former crematorium, one of the first to be opened in former Prussia. Well, it turns out the show was actually in the Betonhalle, which is a new construction next to the crematorium. Still, for being a concrete hall (that’s the translation, and it’s literal), the space was fairly cool.

I’d been busy and hadn’t paid close attention to who the guests might be until the day of the show. I only really knew Stephen Morris (of Joy Division and New Order) but I was intrigued by the rest and looking forward to some interesting collaborations. Well, my first surprise was that Chicks on Speed appeared as the opening act. Well, actually, the real first surprise was that they had a member of their entourage, Jeremiah Day, come out and instruct the audience on some qigong and contact improvisation to help us rid ourselves of anxieties. He said normally he did these exercises with the band to get them in the right mood, but they asked him to do it for the crowd. That was actually kind of fun.

And then Chicks on Speed came out. These days they are nominally Melissa Logan and Alex Murray-Leslie, but another person I read as a woman stood behind a laptop and some other gadgets, and Jeremiah also came out to add vocals on one song. Melissa and Alex sang and spoke their way through several songs in fairly fast succession, and the breaks weren’t always so clear. Their music seemed almost entirely pre-recorded, although it was unclear to me what the third person may have contributed. At first I found their vibe chaotic and bizarre. Then I suddenly found myself entranced by their politics, wit, and unconventional grooves. They were loose, but they were incredibly fun to behold. They played two then-unreleased songs, including one titled “Two Songs” to support the release of Julian Assange from prison, which was released two days after the show. I thoroughly enjoyed their a capella version of Delta 5’s classic “Mind Your Own Business”, with words humorously adapted for the contemporary era. Their final number was a version of their biggest “hit”, “We Don’t Play Guitars”, which included Alex playing a high heel shoe outfitted with guitar strings to create a mess of noise.

[Chicks on Speed. Note the high-heel “guitar” by the amp on the left.]

Michael Rother got right down to business and had little to say, preferring as usual to let the music convey his messages. He was again accompanied by Franz Bargmann on rhythm guitar and Hans Lampe on drums, and they kicked off a setlist that seemed rather familiar to what I’d seen three years ago. The mix was a bit muddy, though, and the crowd got very pushy. Nonetheless, the music was stellar. Rother’s signature shimmering guitar blaze and the insistent motorik beats kept me floating. The first real highlight was Yann Tiersen coming out to play synth on “Sonderangebot” and “Weissensee”, which were medleyed just like on Neu! (1972). Tiersen’s contributions were great; he added tasteful touches that added flavor and detail but didn’t obscure the core vibe. I was disappointed to see him leave.

The next surprise was Vittoria Maccabruni coming out to sing on “Negativland”, a song that I’ve only ever heard performed in instrumental arrangements. Unfortunately, she was practically inaudible. I liked the idea, and it sounded like it would’ve worked, but I just could not hear her! I caught just a few words here and there and that was it. I could barely even catch the melody. She stayed out after that and switched to synthesizer for three songs, but again, I could barely hear her contributions! I don’t know what the deal was, especially since Tierson hadn’t had any problems. I could just barely make out some bits of her synth, but they were incoherent. The songs in question were a bit too monotonous and static, so without her parts, I found myself mildly bored and increasingly distracted by the pushy crowd. I wondered if they would play something from their collaborative album, As Long as the Light (2022), but it didn't seem that they did. Besides, most of the album is minimal downbeat techno, with Rother’s parts relegated to texture and soundscape rather than showcasing his signature sound like the live set did.

And that was about it. I never actually saw Stephen Morris until I checked the website again and saw he was listed as a DJ! Sure enough, he was still over at the turntables. Admittedly I had been enjoying the house music more than I usually do, but it hadn’t really occurred to me that he wouldn’t be performing with Rother on stage. I also found it odd that Chicks on Speed had vocally expressed a desire to perform with Rother, but they did not come back out. That would’ve been awesome, although I have no idea what they would’ve done together.

I came away feeling rather disappointed. I’d enjoyed most of Rother’s set, and yet my expectations had been set high, both by the last show I saw and by the marketing as a Neu! tribute. He did a slightly higher concentration of Neu! songs than last time, but it was overall quite similar, and he again didn’t play any of the songs that more obviously bear the mark of his erstwhile bandmate Klaus Dinger. I mean, he recently appeared on stage with Iggy Pop to do a truly inspired take on “Hero”, and I would’ve loved to see something like that. Alas. I’m surprised to report that I think I enjoyed the Chicks on Speed set more than Rother’s. I think my experience was all about expectations: I was hyped up by the marketing, and I don’t think I quite got what I was sold. Meanwhile, I didn’t even know Chicks on Speed would be performing, and their set was entrancing and jubilant.

[Michael Rother with Vittoria Maccabruni.]

Michael Rother’s setlist (approximate):
01. Neuschnee
02. Isi
03. Seeland
04. Veteranissimo [Harmonia song]
05. Deluxe (Immer wieder) [Harmonia song]
06. Sonderangebot → Weissensee [with Yann Tiersen on synth]
07. Zyklodrom
08. Hallogallo
09. Negativland [with Vittoria Maccabruni on vocals]
10. Groove 139 [with Vittoria on synth]
11. Dino [Harmonia song, with Vittoria on synth]
12. E-Musik [with Vittoria on synth]
13. Im Glück

Note that I might’ve mixed up a few things, and the trio near the end with Vittoria on synth kind of blurred together, so I might’ve gotten them wrong. I also didn’t label the Neu! songs since most of them were!

Chicks on Speed’s setlist (incomplete):
1. Shooting from the Hip
2. Two Songs
3. Mind Your Own Business [Delta 5 cover]
4. Utopia
5. We Don’t Play Guitars

Michael Rother: B-
Chicks on Speed: A-

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