Barbican Centre, London, Sat 8th April
If pressed to name my most favourite band of all, I don't quite know who I would go for. But legendary Krautrock band Can would certainly be on the shortlist. And now they're... well, they're not exactly revived. In fact in the programme, former keyboardist Irmin Schmidt stated quite firmly “I hate revivals – revivals mean you reanimate something dead. That's not what I ever did.” Instead, there's two separate sets – each with it's own nature.
Which is probably all to the good. Rob Young, who has just published a book about the band, comments on the accompanying podcast that many have tried to sound like Can, but no-one has ever managed it. And in fact many of the best bands where influenced by without being imitative of them, such as the Fall or early Public Image. So it's the best idea for prior participants to do something new, but in the spirit of what went before.
In the first half, former keyboardist Irmin Schmidt conducted a new orchestral piece, 'Can Dialog', (co-written with Gregor Schwellenbach). And in fact formally speaking Can were something of an anomaly in his career, before their formation he was conduction, and since he's mostly composed film and TV scores.
The most obvious point of comparison might seem Philip Glass' orchestral versions of Bowie. But rather than a reworking in a new musical setting it was a whole new composition which incorporated Can themes along the way. (“Weaving quotations and motifs”, as the programme put it.) It was similar to the way classical composers of old would incorporate folk tunes, even if in Schmidt's case both were his.
The Can contributions mostly appeared as melodies, floating through the work, often introduced by the wind instruments. And, for a band best known for maintaining a groove, they turn out to have quite affecting and memorable melodies. There seemed to be quite long sections which were Can-free (unless my ears missed them). But the orchestra would often play rhythmically of it's own accord, stopping their appearances as feeling merely decorative. It felt like Schmidt collaborating with himself, able to find harmonious links between his elder and junior incarnations.
Those many chairs were then cleared away and the second set given over to a rock band setting. As with This Heat recently, an enlarged ensemble (eight in all) performed amended and updated versions of Can tracks. In fact both gigs featured Thurston Moore on guitar. Perhaps he's just moved in backstage.
If you were to say Can never had to sound like Can, that might sound like an inevitable truism, applicable to any band. Yet they weren't really a band for rehearsing numbers until they were well-drilled enough to perform them. Given their own dedicated practise space (in a castle), they'd improvise freely then edit things down for release. And they rarely performed numbers the same way twice.
Except you can over-emphasise all of that. In fact the most incredulous element of the story, hanging out in a castle, is the only unarguably true part. Like the Velvets, a strong influence in the early days, they mixed free-form jams with quite strong songs, and that combination is a large part of their appeal. But it was a way of working which kept their playing organic, like it was all happening in the moment. They were agile and sinewy, not musclebound.
With Schmidt not rejoining the band for the second half, Holger Czukay too ill to travel and the sad death of Jaki Liebezeit in January, original vocalist Malcolm Mooney was left as the only actual Can member onstage. Yet ironically he sometimes felt like a weak link, the Mooney who'd repeat phrases until he'd go off into a trance state not always present. And it seemed strange to watch him reading lyrics which at the time had been arbitrarily plucked from thin air. It worked much better when, rather than providing lead vocals, he'd fall back in the mix, or when the players would take over entirely.
The twin guitars of Moore and James Seawards (who plays in Moore's current group) were definitely hypnotic and powerful. The twin drummers of Steve Shelley and Valentina Magoletti could work just as well, but were over-utilised and kept on their dual-powered, double-barelled setting too much. A track like 'Thief', requires something more intimate, not to be walked on with hobnail boots.
Were a Can tribute band to exist (and one probably does), what might they sound like? I imagine they'd learn the songs ably enough, but only manage a faux approximation of those trance-out grooves. The most essential element of any band of course being the most irreproducable – the chemistry between the players. If anything this band was the opposite, quite ready to take off and often majestic in flight, but less conversant with the songs. It was 'Deadly Doris, 'Uphill' and 'You Doo Right' which came across, rather than 'Thief' or 'Mary, Mary'. Overall it seemed the post-Velvets powerhouse Can who were being channelled. And channelled superbly. But there were so many other faces to Can...