Dashing, dapper and debonair, Max Raabe might have walked straight out of the Golden Age of Berlin in the 1920s. With his elegant poise, suave sophistication and silky-smooth baritone, he brings to life the songs and style of a bygone age.
Style that has gone out of fashion, perhaps, in an age where few of us dress for dinner or even a night at the opera - but songs that have earned the status of standards.
Yet the time has never been better to discover the singer bringing timeless tunes by legends like Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, through to almost-forgotten names such as Al Bowlly and Fred Astaire, to a new generation.
With a vintage revival sweeping the US, and growing numbers of twentysomethings donning tuxedos, flapper dresses and feathered head-bands to do the Charleston and the Foxtrot, Max Raabe's moment has arrived.
His ageless Peter Pan looks and impeccable style on and offstage have already made him a legend in his native Germany. So much so that he had to sell his beloved 1930s-vintage BMW because he was recognized as soon as he took the wheel.
In America multi-city tours and enthusiastic coverage have earned him similar heights in popularity. Highlights in the US include sold out performances at Carnegie Hall, and appearances in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, Atlanta, Seattle, Cleveland and many more. Audiences around the world have been entertained not only by his meticulous recreations of the standards as they used to be sung – in formal evening wear, with an orchestra, giving proper credits to the composers. They have also been rolling in the aisles at his deadpan jokes. Yes, Max Raabe is an example of that most unexpected quality – German humor. And in case you ever wondered, he assures us that: “All Germans are well aware that we have an international reputation for discipline, organization and efficiency - but no sense of humor.”
Max Raabe is not only a unique talent, but a very funny man. He has even traded quips with Ernie and Bert on Sesame Street – or Sesame Strasse, as it is known in Germany. Perhaps it comes from his father: “His sense of humor was so dry that sometimes it was only the next day that I realized he had made a joke.”
Born into a family of farmers just as The Beatles were serving their apprenticeship in the bars and clubs of Hamburg, Max's childhood musical tastes were formed by his discovery of a weekly programme of 1920s music on German radio. “My brother was listening to Jethro Tull but that was my secret passion,” he remembers.
“It was broadcast on Tuesday nights when I had to attend sports training, but I persuaded a friend of mine to record it for me every week. He would patiently hold the microphone to the radio in my family's kitchen – sometimes you could hear my mother cooking in the background.”
His passion was first roused by a record he found in his parents' cupboard: a humorous instrumental called I'm Crazy About Hilda. Before long he was collecting 78s in flea markets and junk shops. By the age of 16 he was an expert on the songs and styles of the Weimar era, his enthusiasm fuelled by black-and-white films featuring music, dance and comedy.
Then came the discovery of Wagner - “That made me aware of how wonderful it must be to go onstage and sing” - and of the Lieder maestro Dietrich Fischer - Dieskau, who remains his musical idol. And so, still in his teens, he plucked up the courage to dress up in his father's top hat and tails at the height of the disco era to sing old-fashioned favorites at parties for friends.
In his early 20s Max moved to Berlin to study opera, dreaming of becoming a baritone, moonlighting with a friend to perform the 1920s songs he loved so much at bars and student parties. After graduating, he made a handful of appearances in Carmina Burana at the Berlin Philharmonie, but quickly realized his true love remained the music of the 1920s and, surprised to find that there was no ensemble performing such songs, he formed with fellow students the Palast Orchester to play it.
“The appeal is the timeless quality in the music, but also the humor,” he says. Max's drily witty concert 'announcements,' in which he gives a brief background to each song, before crediting the composer, lyricist and year of publication, provide a humorous counterpoint. “Because perhaps a woman brings her husband to a concert and he might not like the singer or the music, but he may like the humor of the jokes.”
Despite that, the songs and music are treated with the utmost reverence. “It is like a church service,” he says. “The stage is the altar, and I am the priest. Every note and ever phrase is polished like a diamond. We all studied classical music and we interpret the music in the same way we would interpret Beethoven. We take the music seriously – but we don't take ourselves seriously.”
Therein lies the appeal of Max Raabe, a man out of time, yet entirely in tune with today's Recession-hit world, where – just like Berlin in the 1920s – we all want to take our minds off austerity with a night of good old-fashioned entertainment.
“My only message is to entertain the audience during the concert and transport them out of reality,” he insists. “That is why this music was written, to take the audience away from their everyday problems. And it still works today.”
Max Raabe & Palast Orchester last performed with La Jolla Music Society at a special donor event on October 29, 2007
For more information visit www.palast-orchester.de