The Can Project – Review (Barbican)

Can was a German experimental rock band formed in Cologne, West Germany in 1968 by the core quartet of Holger Czukay (bass), Irmin Schmidt (keyboards), Michael Karoli (guitar), and Jaki Liebezeit (drums). The group cycled through several vocalists, including Malcolm Mooney (1968–1970) and Damo Suzuki (1970–1973), as well as various temporary members. Drawing from backgrounds in the avant-garde and jazz, Can incorporated minimalist, electronic, and world music elements into their often psychedelic and funk-inflected music. However, ultimately I believe they might be unclassifiable. They have been widely hailed as pioneers of the German krautrock scene.

Most band members came from wildly different backgrounds: Czukay & Schmidt had directly studied under the influential composer Karlheinz Stockhausen, Karoli was a 19-year-old guitar prodigy & pupil of Czukay, Liebezeit was a drummer in various free jazz groups but had grown disenchanted with that scene, Mooney was a creative, highly rhythmic but unstable & often confrontational New York-based sculptor & Suzuki was a young Japanese traveller found busking outside a Munich café by Czukay and Liebezeit.

As a Can fanatic, I suppose this gig was as good as I could’ve hoped for. Obviously, the magic of the early years will never be replicated, & as Schmidt correctly states: “The whole work of Can was based not on routine or to repeat what’s already done, but to always find new adventures; (my goal) all my musical life is never to make revivals – I hate revivals – revivals mean you reanimate something dead. That’s not what I ever did. It’s a totally new adventure”.

And indeed it was. The first half featured the world premiere of a new composition, Can Dialog, written by Schmidt & composer Gregor Schwellenbach & performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. The piece retained Can’s collage approach to writing, weaving quotations & motifs from some of Can’s best-known pieces, including Halleluhwah, Sing Swan Song, One More Night & Spoon. Clearly, they weren’t trying to make a best-of medley, & I admired the way in which the piece organically took the form of a traditional four-movement symphony: long movement, followed by a rhythmic one, a slow passage, then the finale. From a classical music point of view, Can have more in common with the 20th century sounds of Ligeti, Bartok, Stravinsky & Messiaen. It totally worked as an experiment & I could appreciate the juxtaposition of hearing Can’s normally dirty trance funk suddenly translated so beautifully by the purity of a symphonic orchestra.

This was followed by a performance of an orchestral suite of music from Irmin Schmidt’s La Fermosa, a ballet which was originally premiered in Dusseldorf in 2008. Have you ever found yourself watching the Proms, and they premiere a new piece of music that’s just so dissonant & borderline unlistenable that you can’t wait for it to end? This was like that. Mind you, it didn’t last long & I got the impression it was only put in the schedule as a way of giving Schmidt & the LSO something else to do.

After an interval screening of Can’s 1972 performance at Cologne Sporthalle, the concert organiser gave a speech which included tributes to Can guitarist Michael Karoli, who died in 2001, & Can drummer Jaki Liebezeit, who died in January & had been due to perform. His presence was sadly missed. Nevertheless, the lineup still boasted a superb array of musicianship including Thurston Moore & James Sedwards on guitar, Deb Googe (My Bloody Valentine) on bass, Steve Shelley (Sonic Youth) on drums & Can’s first vocalist Malcolm Mooney. It was all pretty exciting – an improvisational approach of reinventions of Can songs & it was amazing to see Mooney get another chance to perform in a different way with new musicians. Blisteringly brilliant renditions of the best early-era Can tracks ensued including Thief, Yoo Doo Right & Mother Sky. Apart from a lighting display that was a bit too intense, it was perfect. Mooney, who must surely be pushing 80, has lost none of the charisma or raw power that made him such a compelling performer to begin with & the band were faithful to the hypnotic proto-punk grooves that Can did so well.

This honestly didn’t feel like a nostalgia act at all, so as far as I’m concerned, Can have accomplished their mission. When they play Glastonbury in June, I can only hope that even more people discover this incredible force to be reckoned with.

 

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