Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester arrive in Manchester on the final date of their first ever UK tour.
But while the German singer and his 12-piece orchestra may be relatively unknown to British audiences, their music is nostalgically familiar.
Taking inspiration from the sounds of the 1920s and 30s, the evening creates a sense of not just another era but almost another world. In many ways for the audience it is. There is no older generation that it is aimed at who are alive to say, this is the music of my hey-day. Yet so many of us have memories of the songs like ‘Singing in the Rain’, ‘Happy Days are Here Again’, ‘Cheek to Cheek’ and Mack The Knife (here sung in German), because they’ve been kept alive through both musical theatre and the swing era.
Saying that, Raabe’s unique style fits neither with a musical theatre performer or a crooner. Impeccably presented in black-tie pre-interval and refreshed in white-tie on his return, he is a dapper mix of 1920’s starch-collar and 2020’s cool reserve.
His original versions of familiar tunes are light, breezy and reserved in a way that makes the audience rush to fill the gap with their own emotion. In many ways it is hard to understand why in their 30 years together this orchestra hasn’t played the UK outside of London, because the reserve, irony and dry humour of the performance feels very British – the Bridgewater Hall audience were quickly transfixed.
Raabe’s pure tones appear almost effortless and at times his whistles a tune while barely moving his lips. At the same time the show is cleverly choreographed as Raabe steps forward to introduce each song and, when not singing, a swift lighting change sees him retreat into the shadows. He sings at the mic, almost expressionlessly still. When he sings, ‘I Won’t Dance’ we believe him whole-heartedly.
But the performance while relaxed and glamorous is not without fun. Raabe’s introductions are delivered with dead-pan comic timing. He jokes that perhaps when King Herod’s daughter asked for John the Baptist’s head on a plate instead of thinking whether he had the power to do that, perhaps should have asked: “What went wrong in her upbringing that she wants that as a birthday present?”
In a similarly surreal leap from 20s lyrics to Biblical tales of Samson and Delilah, Raabe manages to squeeze in an oblique reference to Donald Trump.
His multi-talented orchestra are full of surprises too, particularly in their versatility. Bernd Dieterich plays both the double-bass and its size equivalent in brass, the sousaphone. Jörn Ranke plays trombone, before coming to the front on viola, as part of a string trio, and later joins Raabe centre stage on vocals.
★ ★ ★ ★
Raabe has led his dance band since 1986 with more or less the same line-up for most of that time. Together they deliver a polished, assured performance that is utterly absorbing. The evening is two-and-a-half hours of very welcome escapism, with a charm that is both relaxed and sophisticated. Hopefully this visit to Manchester will be their first of many.
Max Raabe & Palast Orchester was at The Bridgewater Hall on Friday 6 March 2020.