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Max Raabe brings retro German cabaret band to town

Vocalist Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester bring the elegant sound of Weimar-era cabaret music to Jackson Hall at the Mondavi Center next week. Courtesy photo

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April 6, 2011 | Leave Comment

Details

What: Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 13

Where: Jackson Hall at the Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts, UC Davis

Tickets: $25-$49 general, $12.50-$24.50 students, available at http://mondaviarts.org or (530) 754-2787

Mondavi Center audiences will get a taste of a sophisticated musical style that hasn’t been heard here in the past on Wednesday, April 13, when vocalist Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester bring the elegant sound of Weimar-era cabaret music to Jackson Hall.

Raabe and his band have done much to revive this high class style, which blossomed briefly in the turbulence of Berlin during the years after World War I, and then faded away during World War II.

The music is elegantly romantic, the lyrics are witty and ironic … and worldly wise (maybe even a teeny bit risqué) when it comes to love, and matters of the heart. The gentlemen in the 13-piece band perform dressed to the nines, in trim tuxedos and neat bow ties. The group’s sole female member, a violinist, wears an evening gown.

Raabe is the slender, dashing vocalist and host, looking like he might have grown up singing numbers from that period like “Dream a Little Dream of Me,” or “You’re the Cream in My Coffee,” or “Wenn der weisse Flieder wieder blüht.” You can almost hear a champagne cork popping in the background somewhere.

Except that Raabe is much too young to remember those days. He was born in 1962, when the Beatles were becoming huge. Raabe was a teenager during the late 1970s and early 1980s, when disco music ruled the charts.

“My parents gave me a normal childhood,” Raabe told The Enterprise in a phone interview from Germany. “But I discovered these old gramophone disks in my parents’ record collection. There was a very funny song with no words called ‘I’m Crazy about Hilda.’ It was sentimental, with a melancholy subnote to it.”

Raabe was taken with this sound from decades past, and when he was a teenager, he began buying more old records at flea markets and such. There weren’t many ways for him to experience the music live: Weimar cabaret music had largely disappeared from stages in Germany.

(Americans had a somewhat easier time getting in touch with music from the 1930s: Duke Ellington kept composing for his big band until his death in 1974, and Lawrence Welk kept his oh-so-wholesome band on TV until 1982, followed by years of reruns.

(To a degree, the lineup in the Palast Orchester bears a certain resemblance to those bands: a mix of saxophones and clarinets, trombones and trumpets, and a tuba; plus a bit of piano — or even accordion — with drums and string bass.)

But Raabe was drawn German-language songs from the 1920s and early 30s, and there were few people performing them in Germany (or anywhere else) during the 1980s. So when he was in his late teens, Raabe began to sing some of the old tunes in local talent shows.

Later on, when he spent the better part of seven years training as an opera singer at the Berlin University of the Arts, he put together the band that eventually became the Palast Orchester. And in the end, he decided not to pursue a career as an operatic baritone, and took his chances on reviving public interest in the Weimar cabaret music.

Raabe’s retro form of entertainment gradually picked up a following in Germany, as he began issuing albums in the late 1980s. He began to draw audiences in the United States as well, appearing at Carnegie Hall in 2005, 2007, and 2010. The 2007 concert at Carnegie Hall was issued as an album, “Heute Nacht Oder Nie” (“Tonight or Never”), that was very well received.

Raabe’s current album, “Küssen kann man nicht alleine” (“One Cannot Kiss Alone”) featuring songs he co-authored with Annette Humpe, was released in January, and swiftly rose to No. 3 on the German charts. He’s done a few cameos in movies, playing German band leaders in the Weimar era.

In October of last year, Raabe took his band on a tour of Israel.

“I was very curious, because we as a German orchestra were playing the repertoire of the 1920s and early 1930s. And many of our songs were written by Jewish composers and song writers,” he said. “So there were a lot of Jewish people who had told us ‘You should go to Israel to present this music.’ So we did.”

How did it go? “There were young people who were curious about this music — they don’t have our kind of music there,” Raabe said. “And there were a few very old people who were hearing this music of that time once again. That was of course very heady stuff for us. They were very thankful, and I’m glad we did it.”

Raabe keeps the music as close to the source as possible. “We play the original orchestral arrangements from that era. That’s why it sounds so original,” he said.

He mixes in a patter of jokes, clever little stories and winking references to the social hazards of comparing one beautiful lady with another (and then sings a song like “You Are My Greta Garbo”). Raabe may speak German-accented English, with sentence structures that sometimes resemble his mother tongue, but his timing with a punchline is precise.

“This is the most beautiful, elegant pop music ever,” Raabe said, with conviction. “It has a right to be on stage these days.”

— Reach Jeff Hudson at jhudson@davisenterprise.net or (530) 747-8055.

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