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January 22, 2009

I Got Raabed: Max Raabe Steals Back the Night

by John Oseid

If the zeitgeist of our age is irony, how perfect that urbane German crooner Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester have revived the world-weary, tongue-in-cheek cabaret hits of the Weimar era. On a recent bitter cold evening, I traveled to upper Fifth Avenue and nestled into the Neue Galerie's intimate Viennese-style Café Sabarsky. The tuxedoed baritone, accompanied by pianist Christoph Israel, punctuated his sly expressions and exaggerated rolling Rs with dry wit: "Music has always been closely tied to destiny and personal tragedy. Who cares, as long as you're not involved." Over the course of the show, Raabe shifted seamlessly into falsetto--and the two of them can whistle like nobody's business. It took four curtain calls before the audience let the duo retire for the night.

Forty-six-year-old Raabe doesn't put on some sort of parody act. His waltzes, rumbas, tangos, and fox-trots are the real thing. Now you can discover him, too, on the new two-CD set Heute Nacht Oder Nie (Tonight or Never), recorded with his full 13-member Palast Orchester during their live 2007 Carnegie Hall performance. Was, Du sprichts kein Deutsch? Doesn't matter, the album is filled with zany rhyming tunes. "Mein Gorilla hat 'ne Villa im Zoo" is a hoot even if you can't quite suss out that your gorilla has a villa in the zoo. Plus, his repertoire features plenty of English standards like "Singin' in the Rain" and "Cheek to Cheek."

Many of Raabe's German songs were made famous by the pre-World War II Comedian Harmonists. If you have 17 minutes to steal from your workday--and who doesn't these days?--the English-speaking singer explains his approach to twenties and thirties music in the above promotional video.

Mr. Raabe and his partners' finely turned homages have been featured on "All Things Considered." Their stage numbers would make for a sophisticated but fun PBS concert special, as well. Hey, PBS, you listening? Suze Orman again? Really?

More music:
* Another Max Raabe and Palast Orchester tour is in the works for the States. In the meantime, if you've got a travel date with Deutschland, you can catch him all over the country this year; March 10 in Heidelberg or Dresden in the fall, for example. His bilingual Web page has the complete schedule.
* Here's a fun video with a pseudo-martial air to it that the group shot for the 2006 World Cup. "Schiess den Ball ins Tor" means "Kick the ball in the goal."
* Search the Web and you'll find plenty of campy versions of modern pop songs that Raabe has adapted as well: e.g., "Tainted Love" and "Oops! . . . I Did It Again." Here, in an accomplished version of a song already dripping with irony, his horn section rips through the hot Tom Jones hit "Sex Bomb."
* A 1997 German film Comedian Harmonists tells the story of the famous sextet banned by the Nazis.
* Boom Box: An unabashed gusto for music of the world.

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