Thursday, October 16, 2008

Review: Max Raabe & Palast Orchester

Oct. 15, University of Richmond

On a day when the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged 733 points and CBS pollsters reported that more than one-third of both John McCain’s and Barack Obama’s supporters would "detest" the other candidate as president, what better way to spend the evening than to recall the musical amusements of Germany as it was about to slide into depression and political upheaval?

The timing of this performance by Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester, a singer and big band reviving songs and dance tunes heard in the nightclubs and dance halls of the late Weimar Republic, was coincidental – socioeconomic forecasting is not a factor in talent booking by the University of Richmond’s Modlin Arts Center. But the coincidence was pretty spooky.

Even the historically hyper-conscious, however, would have been hard-pressed to detect intimations of doom in this show, titled "Tonight or Never."

The selections were American Tin Pan Alley chestnuts garnished with German novelties, mostly naïvely romantic or jocular in tone, sung by Raabe, a lyric baritone who exudes a dry wit in place of the stereotypical cabaret leer, and played by a band that, in 1920s style, features fiddles and early jazz rhythm instruments (tuba, banjo, mallet percussion) alongside the standard brass and reed sections.

European pop and jazz of the ’20s are propelled by the same boop-boop-be-doop rhythmic energy of American music of the time, but with continental touches of gypsy and klezmer music and subtle echoes of the waltz and other European dances. Raabe and company strain this hybrid sound through a filter of art-deco elegance and an emotional tenor that can be perceived as detached or ironic. It’s escapist entertainment, but you can’t be sure what you’re escaping from or what refuge you should expect to land in.

Seeing and hearing a lanky gent with lacquered hair and garbed in white tie and tails singing "Bei mir bist du schoen" (and not mispronouncing "schoen") has the ring of authenticity. He’s still on fairly solid ground in "Singing in the Rain" and "Dancing Cheek to Cheek." But when he turns to "Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?" a weirdly appealing cognitive dissonance begins to kick in. By the time he gets to "My Gorilla Has a Villa," we’ve lurched into infectiously giddy surreality.

Raabe inhabits much the same time warp as Leon Redbone, the veteran American revivalist of old-time popular song, and manages a comparable balance between period stylistic rigor and post-modern comic sensibility. The difference is that Redbone is generally a one-man band, while Raabe fronts a large ensemble of virtuoso musicians, several of whom are multi-instrumentalists (a trombonist doubling on viola!), and are willing and able to step into vocal ensembles and provide bits of shtick comedy.

Redbone's venue is a juke joint. Raabe plays the Palast.