Berlin to Britney, Max Raabe excels at interpreting music of 1920s-30s and beyond
“Our main mission is the music of the ‘20s and ‘30s, but from time to time we do some jokes and one of the jokes is to play the music of the Top 10,” explained Raabe, a baritone who sings in a cabaret style that hasn’t been popular since World War II.
“Everybody knows us here with the repertoire of the ‘20s and ‘30s, and suddenly we sang songs by Britney Spears. It was strange for an audience who knows us with another repertoire; it was just a joke.”
Although a search of YouTube reveals a variety of those “joke” pop covers, delivered in Raabe’s typically suave, timing-is-everything style (Tom Jones’ “Sex Bomb” and Spears’ “Ooops I Did It Again” have been big hits in Europe), there’s also a good representation of the music that gets to the heart of what the Palast Orchester is all about. Note the impeccable musicianship and cabaret sensibilities the band brings to period pieces such as “You're the Cream in my Coffee” and “Du bist meine Greta Garbo (You Are My Greta Garbo).”"There's a humor, a timeless humor in these pieces, and a timeless elegance," Raabe said of the more classic repertoire. “I think it’s the elegance the sophisticated humor in the songs. This is a difference to the music our day. It’s another kind of way to tell the story of the problems between men and women.”
The tour that brings Raabe and the ensemble to Hill Auditorium Saturday night courtesy the University Musical Society is not their first of the U.S., but at more than three weeks it will be their longest.
Raabe said the program will include tunes from the new album, “KÃ¼ssen kann man nicht alleine" ("One Cannot Kiss Alone"), as well as the older songs for which they have become known. The program will be performed in English and German.
Although he’s been immersed in the music of the past for some time now, the new disc is a bit of a departure, Raabe said. The songs on the album, which he composed in collaboration with German producer and former New Wave musician Annette Humpe, were all written recently.
“The idea was how would a composer of the 1920s write a song in our days,” he explained. "We were concerned about themes that would feel right from that distant period, but also music that would be in a pop style from now.” “One Cannot Kiss Alone” consists of 12 tales of modern love, with five of the tracks re-recorded in English.
While Raabe, 49, discovered his love of music from the 1920s as a teen, his original ambition upon undertaking studies at the Berlin University of the Arts was to become an opera singer. In 1986, he formed the Palast Orchester in order to make money to fund his education. He and fellow musicians rummaged through archives and flea markets, and collected old records and films from which it was possible to arrange songs authentically.
Raabe said he’s not surprised to find American audiences receptive to the music of the Palast Orchester.
“Both sides of the Atlantic are very familiar with this repertoire,” he explained. “We have nearly the same history of pop music. A lot of bands traveled from the United States and came to Berlin at that time, for example Paul Whiteman in the ’30s The music was between English spoken language countries and German language countries and France—it’s nearly the same background.”
Raabe is also delighted at the success the ensemble is enjoying in Europe, and now in the U.S.
“This is our music; we are in love with it and it’s wonderful to be successful in Berlin and in Germany,” he said. “This is nice, suddenly we are in the United States. Your country is so big and full of fantastic artists Of course what we can show to you is very exotic and a strange thing from Germany, Maybe it’s funny for American audiences, very surprising there’s this kind of humor in Germany. It’s exotic I guess, maybe that is the reason it works so well in the United States.”