In recognition of Can’s 50th anniversary the Barbican and the Goethe Institute held a unique night dedicated to the influential krautrock pioneers. In a celebration worthy of Can’s originality the night comprised of two unique performances, an original composition written and conducted by founding member Irmin Schmidt and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. The second saw a super-group led by Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore – with vocals provided by Can’s first ever singer Malcolm Mooney – performing a number of the groups most renowned tracks.
Beginning the evening with a Q&A held to a packed room of eager balding men in faded band t-shirts, the session saw contributions from Can biographer Rob Young whose book ‘All Gates Open’ was initially set to coincide with the evening before an unfortunate delay, and Gregor Schwellenbach, the man who took on the daunting task of co-writing the night’s first performances with founding member Irmnin Schmit. Schwellenbach provided a brief but insightful look at the creative and logistical task of writing the nights LSO arrangement entitled Can Dialogue, detailing Schmit’s want to create an original piece “We both agreed very soon that we wanted to write a new piece, quoting melodies and motifs of Can pieces” showing Schmit’s strive for originality hasn’t changed, even at the age of 79. “My goal, all my musical life is never to make revivals – revivals means you reanimate something dead,” he added.
Following this, Young gave a humorous and detailed account of the groups incarnation and early years, discussing Schmit’s career as a successful classically trained conductor before beginning the experimental collaboration, as well as their apparent telepathic links, early studio space within a castle and interesting forms of financial income sourced by scoring blue movies and obscure TV detective series in their formative years.
The first of the evening’s two main features began with the expansive array of the 72-piece London Symphony Orchestra dawning the stage, shortly followed by Shmit’s gleeful presence, his face brimming with excitement. Split into four segments, the neo-classical composition bared little in similarity to the Can performances of the 60s and 70s but Irmin’s experimental approach was still rife, few musicians would dare instruct the world’s leading orchestra to hammer on their priceless instruments like drums. As some references were relatively clear, motifs and melodies from songs such as ‘Spoon’ and ‘Halleluwah’ could be picked out of the textural array, others were much more obscured, the occasional fragment of familiarity weaving between the orchestral rushes.
The Can Dialogue and La Fermosa, another of Schmit’s orchestral arrangement saw the LSO narrate between full timbre grandeur and contemporary minimalism, echoing stylistic references to its origins with its pulsing rhythms, jarring phrases and static repetitions as they followed the flicking wrist of the German pioneer. A seemingly fitting full circle of a musical carrier for Schmit.
The two halves were separated by an interval screening of Can’s renowned 1972 cologne Sporthalle concert, although this did seem somewhat more of a visual backdrop than an integral part of the event. Post interval Barbican curator Chris Sharp gave thoughtful condolences to several contributors who could not attend the night each receiving a respected applause. Most noteworthy of these being original Can drummer Jaki Liebeziet who was set to take part in the night’s performance before his unfortunate passing in January.
The eight-piece Can project band was led by lifelong fan Thurston Moore and fronted by original Can vocalist Malcolm Mooney alongside an impressive arsenal of musicians, including Debbie Googe of My Bloody Valentine and Steve Shelley of Sonic Youth. Mooney greeted the audience through an effects ladened microphone over a bed of noise, looking slightly shell-shocked before leading into opening number ‘Outside My Door’, but the 77-year-old’s agility and energy soon shone through into the nine song set as he found his stride. Performing tracks such as ‘Thief and Deadly Doris’ the ensemble were well versed in the evenings set list. The syncopated drumming of Shelly and Valentina Magaletti carried the hypnotic rhythm symbolic of Can while Moore’s trademark guitar feedback manipulation brought emotive dynamics to the mix, if, at times, a little too biased towards alternative rock than its genre-merging originators. It was the band’s 1969 track ‘She Brings the Rain’ which had the audience at their most attentive with its softer passages allowing Mooney’s avant-garde approach to cut through, bringing reflection on what made the group so iconic to begin with.
Although a true replication of Can’s renowned live performance could never truly be achieved Moore led a solid tribute to the legacy. The entire evening demonstrated perfectly the progressive spirit of Can, showing the constant need to evolve, combining genres, techniques, instruments and musicians to create something new out of the old, ultimately paying homage and evolving in unison.