With faultlessly fitting tuxedo, hair slicked back, and a cheeky look, Max Raabe sings the best of the '20s and early '30s with amusing nostalgia. Songs, hits, and couplets. Cuban rumbas, cheerful foxtrots, elegant tangos. The ironic lyrics suit the times today as they did eighty years ago. In the concert halls of New York, Shanghai, Paris, Berlin and Moscow, in Tokyo, Los Angeles, and Vienna, audiences celebrate Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester with incredible enthusiasm.
Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester have released Tonight or Never (Heute Nacht Oder Nie) on SPV Recordings, a recording of last year’s sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall. After a handful of showcase performances in America, October 2008 finds the group’s first USA tour of a dozen cities - including Chicago, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and Washington DC.
When Max Raabe - with an incredibly straight face, ironically raised eyebrow, and slightly bent elbow - enters the stage, almost carelessly, he sends a sardonic look to the audience. With the greatest nonchalance and melodramatically rolling “r” he states, “I break the hearts of the most aloof women. I have such incredible luck with the ladies. My blood is lava and that is the trick.” This man is more than a strange otherworldly phenomenon challenging the delicate sensibilities of the 21st Century.
Even a good twenty years after the founding of the Palast Orchester, after countless performances at home and abroad, the singer who is always perfectly attired astounds his contemporaries with an amazing old-fashionedness. As if from a far-away time he sings, “My Heart is Only Yours,” “My Brother Makes the Sound Effects in the Talkies,” “Bel Ami,” or “My Little Green Cactus” – historic jewels, almost archaic-seeming songs, hits and cabaret of a long-lost era. He performs them with such precise, dry, and down-to-earth, yet excitingly present perfection that the eighty-year-old songs sound as fresh and vivid as they did at their very first performance. They’re not just re-makes nor more-or-less well-played old hits or bittersweet memories for the generation which grew up with the old shellac, but rather wonderful new interpretations which reveal the timeless moderness of this brilliant music. Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester want to keep the unique music of this epoch alive and let it shine night after night. Not as museum pieces, but rather as timeless entertainment whose skewed humor and mocking irony have no peer in their home country of Germany - or elsewhere.
The pieces speak for themselves. For the most part they were written towards the end of the Weimar Republic. In this open, contradictory time period, new paths were forged in all of the arts. Culturally unglamourous times they were not: Josephine Baker danced across the stages of Berlin in a banana skirt. Jazz infected those hungry for entertainment during the roaring twenties.
Revues, variety shows, cabaret, and dance halls sprouted up everywhere. The Charleston became the hip-swinger of the season. The glittering hundred-foot-long chorus line of well-formed legs seductively and threateningly swung precisely to the beat. Yet theater and political cabaret were also an expression of this epoch. Dadaism, Surrealism, new functionalism, and other avant-garde experiments alternated with the need for popular entertainment. And of course there were the hits - the modern medium back then, a fantastic combination of music, lyrics and dance. Composers such as Walter Jurmann, Friedrich Hollaender, Willy Rosen, Theo Mackeben, and Werner Richard Heymann wrote their melodies for operettas and musicals just as finely as those for revues, cabaret, dance houses, and theaters. Just a few measures in their songs transport the feeling of the times. Some of their compositions were created overnight and sung all over Berlin the following day. Many became evergreens, transcending the horrible times when the Weimar Republic failed. After 1933 Germany robbed itself of its culture; its talents were exiled or killed. The lyricists and composers, whose names were to be made forgotten, celebrate a quiet triumph today. They have found a young audience which has discovered and learned to love the skewed humor and mocking irony, the melancholy of these superficially harmless songs and their amusing nostalgia. Often they reflect the comedy and tragedy of human nature in their three or four-minute duration.
Raabe is one of their most superb singers. This flexible baritone, which can lead to the highest tenor heights and drop into a bottomless bass, unites it all: the cunning rasping of the cabaret singer, the confident belcanto hero, the oily melodiousness of the revue beau, the carefree timbre of early jazz, the falsetto of ragtime. Whistled refrains alternate with frivolous-cryptic ambiguity; elegant pianissimo notes with the brilliant nonsense of his accompanying presentation. Flawlessly the musicians of the Palast Orchester sing – when they step up to the microphone and enter the spotlight around Max Raabe – Werner Richard Heymann’s “Darling, My Heart Says Hello to You.” Max Raabe’s art lies in revealing the enigmatic, intelligent ambiguity in addition to the musical power and complexity of these “German chansons” from the turbulent Weimar Republic: between melancholy and irony, rebellion and resignation, elegy and slapstick, there is often only half a measure, sometimes just a single note, a mere word, a syllable.
Where did this Max Raabe come from? Even in the church choir of the small Westphalian town of Lünen, where he was born in 1962, he learned about the wonders of music. In third grade he was impressed by the operas of Wagner and Beethoven’s 9th symphony. “From this moment onwards I knew that I wanted to become a singer.” Later in his boarding school he further developed this early love and listened, in addition to the peculiar sounds of the roaring twenties – which were suddenly played on the radio – first and foremost the famous old recordings of the “Comedian Harmonists.” “I’m Crazy about Hilde” was his first shellac record, which he found in his parents' cupboard - a jovial, fast foxtrot which at the same time exudes sadness. His very first performance was at a Boy Scout social at church alongside his peers’ small skits and jokes. Berlin was one of the names that ran around in his head.
This made him leave tranquil Westphalia and the Catholic diocese of Paderborn for Berlin where he has lived since he was twenty. He began taking private voice lessons. In order to finance his seven-year studies of opera at the renowned Berlin University of the Arts, young Raabe mowed lawns, cleaned houses, and sang here and there - for a bit of money and the enjoyment of neighbors. He had wanted to become an opera singer with his flexible baritone voice. But in 1986 he hit upon a method to finance his studies: to found a “palace orchestra” to perform the hits from the '20s and '30s.
First the sheet music had to be found. With fellow students of the conservatory who also enjoyed the old hits, Raabe dug through archives, flea markets, and antiquarian bookshops, collecting old records and films with whose help it became possible to create authentic polyphonic orchestral arrangements.
“I love clichés, the intact world of the early talkies. Even if it never really existed in reality. And it’s like that with our music. We tell the people something and that’s not nostalgia, but rather sweet frolic.” Rehearsals went on for an entire year. Berlin’s Theaterball in 1987 was their premiere, the first live performance of the twelve-member Palast Orchester and their charismatic singer - who looks like an incredibly well-dressed bean pole. They may have only played in the lowly foyer, but the people wound up staying there instead of moving on into the main ballroom. They were so well-received that they had to perform their program twice.
Max Raabe became a local legend, renowned in Berlin. Sophisticated, urban, certainly cosmopolitan, but the world didn’t know of him yet. The now-certified baritone decided to take up his own pen. Picking up on his own deeply human experience he wrote and composed the timelessly true lament “No One Ever Calls, No One Has a Care for Me” in 1992 and captured the mood and feeling of thousands of people in the age of telecommunication. He wrote the gag for a variety evening in Berlin where the audience expected the usual homage to the music of the roaring '20s. “It’s supposed to be elegant, tasteful nonsense,” says Raabe. “I liked the idea of standing on stage in elegant tails with the orchestra and celebrating such strong language as 'Schwein' (pig) and 'Sau' (swine). It was an elegant way of snubbing. It was supposed to be a one-time gag.” Raabe landed a smash hit.
What then came was the breakthrough. Concerts were overbooked, with more and more engagements and bigger halls. Raabe was offered theater and film roles. And in spring 2004 the singer from Germany with the bewitching soft voice elicited standing ovations from cool New Yorkers. Following were two completely sold-out solo concerts on New York’s elegant Upper East Side, long lines along Fifth Avenue for one of the coveted tickets for the added concert, and shortly thereafter an invitation to perform at Carnegie Hall. Now, the album from that night and a full USA tour.
What is it about Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester that brings fans out in theaters worldwide? Is it the music, is it the lyrics and the melodies? Could it be the pomp and circumstance of the '20s? Is it the musical seriousness? The ability to break up the poses with self-irony? Is it because of his charming manner, the elegance and smartness of his appearance? Perhaps it is because he understands in life, as on stage, to stylize himself to an artform. How? This too, remains his secret. Yet what a lovely one.