Although his first big hit song in Germany, “Kein Schwein ruft mich an,” was in 1992, I didn’t become fully aware of Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester until I was living in Berlin in 2007-2008. After hearing him on the radio, I bought one of his CDs and enjoyed listening to tunes from the 1920s and ’30s – and Raabe’s wry, light-hearted approach to a repertoire of songs rarely heard over the last 80 years or so. He regularly performs live in Berlin and other German cities, although I missed his June 2008 open-air Waldbühne concert in Berlin.
I knew that Raabe and his orchestra had also performed outside of Germany in places like New York and Tokyo, but the last thing I ever expected was to see him on stage in my hometown of Reno, Nevada. Las Vegas or San Francisco maybe, but Reno?
So a few weeks ago, while watching a PBS TV broadcast of a 2009 concert by Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester at Berlin’s Admiralspalast theater, I was a bit stunned to hear that Raabe was going to perform in Reno on April 10, 2011. I immediately went online to buy tickets for my wife and me.
Because most of Raabe’s repertoire is sung in German, it obviously helps if you can understand that language, but he also sings songs in English, and he usually explains the basic idea of his German numbers in English for non-German audiences. Raabe has sung before many non-German-speaking audiences around the world. If Raabe can have successful concerts in Tokyo and Tel Aviv, he certainly can do so in Reno as well.
In recent years Raabe has become something of a musical ambassador for Germany. In concert halls in Shanghai, Jerusalem, Moscow, New York, Paris, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Vienna, Amsterdam and Rome, Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester reanimate 1920s and ’30s Berlin. (Raabe also sings some of his own songs, written in the style of the 1920s.) It is pleasant to return to the music of the Weimar Republic years, before the Nazis largely annihilated German culture and its reputation around the globe. It is easy to feel like you are in a time machine that has transported you into a Berlin cabaret of the Weimar era.
Knowing the course of history after 1933, we can also feel some sweet revenge for the Austrian-Jewish and German-Jewish composers who were among those who created these amusing, light songs for an era that badly needed them. Some of these people – Walter Jurmann, Werner Richard Heymann, Friedrich Hollaender, Bernd Reisfeld and Fritz Rotter – later escaped to Hollywood, where they had renewed success. Others were less fortunate. Willy Rosen died at Auschwitz in 1944. But to enjoy their melodies and lyrics today, as fresh and crisp as they sounded in the 1920s, is a kind of restorative atonement for the negative things that later transpired.
Raabe in Reno
The Reno show began with “Heute Nacht oder nie” (“Tonight or never”), one of the orchestra’s standards, sung in German. Raabe can make you laugh by just standing in front of the microphone with his impish, take-it-or-leave-it expression. Although I was disappointed not to hear either “Ein kleiner grüner Kaktus” or “Kein Schwein ruft mich an,” Raabe did sing quite a few numbers in German, including Hollaender’s “Ich bin von Kopf bis Fuß auf Liebe eingestellt” (“Falling in Love Again, Can’t Help It”), which was originally sung by Marlene Dietrich in Der blaue Engel.
The Reno audience was dominated by older folks (even older than I), many of whom can personally remember the 1930s and the music of that period. (I think a typical Raabe concert in Germany attracts a more age-mixed audience.) Before the show I asked some of the people near us, all from the local area, what drew them to a Max Raabe concert. The answer was the music. It didn’t seem to matter what language it was in, and none of them knew German. (“Enough to order a beer,” said one man.) But Raabe threw in a lot of standards from the ’20s and ’30s that sounded familiar to Americans: “Amapola,” “Cheek to Cheek,” “Night and Day” and a very humorous rendition of “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf.”
Humor is a big part of any Raabe concert. In introducing “Dort tanzt Lulu,” he dryly explained that it was a German waltz. “A German waltz is not as elegant as an Austrian waltz, but it’s louder.” For that number, almost all 12 of the orchestra’s members took part in various accompanying comedic stunts. (Many Raabe songs, such as “My Gorilla has a Villa at the Zoo,” also have clever lyrics.) And it was this live performance that brought home to me how much the Palast Orchester contributes to the total experience. Yet I was also impressed with how precisely and smoothly Max Raabe can use his voice like a musical instrument – from bass to falsetto, from booming to almost a whisper.
The surprise of the night, at least for me, was “My Prayer.” Turns out this well-known song, most famously rendered by the Platters in 1956, was first composed in 1926 by a Romanian violinist named Georges Boulanger (1893-1958, born Ghita Bulencea). Boulanger lived in Berlin for many years. His song became popular as “Avant de mourir.” It was given a new name and new English lyrics in 1939, when Glenn Miller first made it a hit in the US. (I looked this up after the show. Raabe only said it dated back to 1926 and it was by Boulanger. He always announces the date and composer/lyricist for the songs he sings.)
Walking out of the Reno performance, my wife and I talked about how we had not only been transported back to Berlin in the 1920s and ’30s, but also back to that era in the US. It was a delightful journey. Sometimes life is a cabaret, old chum.
In closing, a big Danke schön! to artown, which helped bring Raabe to our town, and the Charlie Palmer Steak House for a delicious pre-show dinner at the Grand Sierra Resort and Casino. You’ll find additional Raabe tour dates below.
On a very different note…
More live German music of another, louder variety is coming to the US in May. Rammstein will be touring Canadian and US cities in 2011 (May 5-21): East Rutherford, NJ; Montreal, QC, Canada; Toronto, ON, Canada; Rosemont, IL; Edmonton, AB, Canada; Tacoma, WA; Oakland, CA; Inglewood, CA; Las Vegas, NV. After Las Vegas, Rammstein will tour in Mexico (May 26-June 1, Mexico City, Guadalajara, Monterrey).
Max Raabe’s 2011 USA tour dates (after Reno):
April 13: UC Davis, CA (Sacramento area)
April 15: Pittsburgh, PA
April 17: Newark, NJ
April 19: Princeton, NJ
Back in Germany:
May 13: Halle an der Saale
May 14: Bamberg
May 15: Ingolstadt
May 16: Ulm
May 17: Wetzlar
May 18: Dortmund
May 20: Trier