Max Raabe Charms the Crowd at the Met
Last night German crooner Max Raabe and his meticulously inspired 15-piece Palast Orchester put on a characteristically devious, slyly entertaining show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In fluent English, with a clipped, deadpan accent that he might have played up for added effect, Raabe led the group through an endlessly playful mix of Weimar and American hot jazz numbers from about 1926 through 1938. While they blended a few slapstick theatre songs into the set, they’re a jazz band first and foremost, and to the immense credit of the Met’s sound crew, the balance of the instruments in the auditorium was perfect, from guitar and banjo to brass to Cecilia Crisafulli’s graceful, understated violin to percussionist Vincent Riewe, whose sly implementation of cymbal and bells was timed to a split second. Raabe maintained his signature deadpan facade throughout the group’s roughly 90 minutes onstage: he didn’t smile once, nor did it look like he broke a sweat either. His M.O. is that he lets the songs, and the tunes, speak for themselves: and in period-perfect vaudeville style, he dished out clever cameo after cameo to the orchestra members, who lept in and out, sometimes in less than a single bar of music, with considerable relish. The four saxophonists came out from behind their matching black-and-white podiums (this is a German band after all) for a faux-Ink Spots interlude where Raabe eventually joined them on high harmonies, and didn’t have to go into head voice (pretty impressive, ja?). Alto saxophonist Johannes Ernst got to deliver a lusciously spiraling outro; baritone saxophonist Rainer Fox took charge of a couple of comedically gruff intros; and guitarist Ulrich Hoffmeier doubled ably on violin along with one of the trombonists on a theatrical number about a girl who goes off to China with a guy who can’t stay faithful. “But that doesn’t matter,” Raabe explained beforehand: it turned out that the girl was just using the guy for his money.
Raabe’s operatic background makes itself evident in his round, precisely modulated tone: that he stops just thisclose to overdoing it is what makes him so amusing – and sometimes genuinely plaintive as well, especially on a wary, knowing version of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. The way he swooped effortlessly upward to the root note as the band kicked into the old Cuban standard Siboney was spot-on (and so was the conga solo that Riewe managed to pull off while somehow holding the center with his woodblock). They redeemed Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf by showing its klezmer roots – that the orchestra could risk a potential Pink Martini moment and instead give it a big grin testifies to their subtlety and originality. In between songs, Raabe amused the audience with deadpan repartee. The evening’s brisk opening number, one of the handful of German-language songs in the set, was about moviegoers wishing their lives could be as glamorous as the movies. “The last time I left a movie theatre, I was glad my life wasn’t so horrible,” Raabe explained. He riffed on American anti-smoking laws and how those who haven’t kicked the habit have to contend with being made into a zoo-like spectacle in airports and outside office buildings. He even sang an original, One Cannot Kiss Alone (the title track to his forthcoming album), nimbly negotiating its torrents of puns over an unexpectedly doo-wop flavored melody.
Raabe told the crowd that a staggered German waltz would not be “elegant like they have in Vienna – but louder.” They closed the set with a German dancehall number about a clumsy dancing girl, the band interpolating a handbell choir into the arrangement to max out the vaudevillian factor. But for all the nonstop good cheer, this group is all too aware that what they play is escapist music: beneath the lushness of the arrangements, there’s an inescapable unease that they occasionally cede centerstage to, most strikingly on the encore, an anxiously brisk Dream a Little Dream of Me. Rather than evoking the jaunty Mama Cass ragtime version, it was a hasty lullaby for someone who’s not about to fall asleep afterward (and a not-so-subtle hint to come see the band the next time they pass through town). Considering the standing ovation the crowd gave them, no doubt many of those people will.
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