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Michael Rother at Jazz Cafe, London - live review

Former Kraftwerk and Neu! musician makes sparks fly

Michael Rother on stage
(Image: © Will Ireland)

As Michael Rother acknowledges with a smile, he isn’t one for talking much onstage. He probably doesn’t want to break the spell cast by the music, which is a wise and astute call. However, he takes a moment tonight to remember fallen comrades: Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit, who provided the motorik beat for Rother’s late‑70s albums and for whom Rother recently played a tribute jam in Cologne; Harmonia colleague Dieter Moebius; and Klaus Dinger, with whom Rother split from an early Kraftwerk in 1971 to form Neu! with great results, altering the course of music.

There’s respectful applause from the Krautrock-enamoured audience, and a voice shouts, “And Holger!” referring to Can’s co-founder Holger Czukay. “Yes, Holger,” defers Rother. “Although actually I never worked with him, but… great stuff.”

This very German mix of accuracy, precision and dry humour serves him well. That exchange aside, the Hamburg-born 67-year-old focuses on what he does best: finding the glory in driving, repetitive grooves that aspire to a transcendent and trance-like state of Zen, while refusing to allow your feet to keep still or your brain to switch off.

His cohorts are guitarist Franz Bargmann, a younger man who nonetheless looks like the most 70s-in-Germany musician ever, and Hans Lampe, veteran of the peerless Neu ’75! album. They provide the solid-as-a-post-rock foundations over which Rother lays his laptop-based sound bed and, most thrillingly, his guitar.

His playing on most tracks begins as decorative, establishing a hint of melody or an effective hook. Then, as the music climbs up through the gears, he gets more possessed, unleashing a serrated, abrasive sound that still retains control and structure. Energy roars as it might from a showier guitarist, yet it emanates from an exquisite balance between raw power and restraint. There’s no widdly-widdly flash here, just plenty of diamond‑sharp edge.

Within these superficially similar but crucially different grooves, any self-respecting music fan will hear glimmers of their favourite artists who recognised Rother’s genius and borrowed and built on elements: Bowie’s Berlin trilogy, obviously, but also scents of early Ultravox, Simple Minds, Radiohead and the 21st-century’s leading lights of electronica.

In front of a subtle film backdrop showing misty autobahns, the trio play a set lasting around 90 minutes, visiting the highlights reel of Neu!, Harmonia and Rother’s solo catalogue. It works best as a whole, developing momentum as the trio pick up a head of steam. Of course, the biggest cheers and most untethered head-nodding (from an all-ages crowd who are concentrating very, very hard) arrive with the Neu! landmarks, which lock in like a sniper fingering a trigger. Krautrock’s greatest living guru still turns less into more and makes sparks fly.

Chris Roberts has written about music, films, and art for innumerable outlets. His new book The Velvet Underground is out April 4. He has also published books on Lou Reed, Elton John, the Gothic arts, Talk Talk, Kate Moss, Scarlett Johansson, Abba, Tom Jones and others. Among his interviewees over the years have been David Bowie, Iggy Pop, Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Bryan Ferry, Al Green, Tom Waits & Lou Reed. Born in North Wales, he lives in London.