Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester Capture the Swingtime Era

By Hubert Ta

It’s nearly impossible for me to say that seeing Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester reinvigorated a time of swing, jazz, and the Roaring Twenties, mainly because I never experienced it (for obvious reasons). But I would like to imagine that the only thing missing to make their performance a perfect reflection of Manhattan, Paris and Weimar Berlin was an actual dance hall instead of the Irvine Barclay Theatre. Otherwise, Raabe’s showmanship, vast repertoire of songs, and the cascade of solos and battling duets amongst the orchestra made the show a powerful reminder of why swing music has endured for a century.

Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester originate from Berlin, formed in 1986 by Raabe and his fellow music students. Primarily performing music of the 1920s and 1930s, the group has staged hundreds of shows to audiences across a dozen countries, utilizing the power of Raabe’s voice and showmanship and the talent of the 12-piece Palast Orchester to perform a diverse set list of German, American, and French songs. Ranging in style from American ragtime and swing to Cuban sambas, German waltzes and Argentinian tangos, the group has recorded many albums and concert films for 30 years and grown in worldwide popularity since their start in Germany.

Last Wednesday, Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester stopped by the Irvine Barclay Theater and put on a spectacular two-hour show, filled with an abundance of music from a bygone era and an amusing display of wit and showmanship from Raabe. The music rotated between fun-filled swing and 1920s dance hall numbers to enchanting ballads and passionate, yet comedic, songs. A flurry of German, French, and English were rapidly interchanged between the lyrics and the talent of Max Raabe shone through in his sheer ability to dazzle in a variety of singing styles. Employing his baritone background, he fluctuated among cabaret, jazz, and ragtime, while the equally talented and stunning Palast Orchester serenaded him.

The songs themselves included a passion that made me want to get up and dance, or slowly melt away into the soothing sounds of sorrow. Songs from George Gershwin and Cole Porter, as well as likely unfamiliar songs like “Dort Tanzt Lu-Lu!,” showed off a flair for adherence to the musical era of the interwar years and a slight humor that the performance held, as if someone was constantly winking for every serious comment. In addition, the most recognizable songs excited the largely older audience (there were a few people around my age), with hits from “La Mer” by Charles Trenet (Bobby Darin’s “Beyond the Sea” uses the same music with different lyrics), Frank Churchill’s “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?,” Al Bowlly’s “Midnight, the Stars and You” (from the Gold Room scene of Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining”), and “San Francisco” from MGM’s 1936 film of the same name. All were pulled off with virtuous tenacity, which accentuated the tonal shifts of the music between the rising crescendos and the soft harmonies.

The best part of the performance was Raabe’s dry wit, which inserted a hilarity that I wouldn’t have expected with this genre of music. But I welcomed it wholeheartedly, as the humor flowed off like a crawling creek, slowly growing before the waterfall punchline appeared. Centered around love and loss, the melancholic sarcasm between songs added a human element that made the show all the more enchanting. For instance, Raabe noted that there are two types of people in the world: those whom you meet and wonder where they have been all your life, and “some people you meet and wonder where they have been all your life, and why they didn’t stay there.” In addition, the orchestra also joined in on the antics, with certain songs used as backdrops between battling soloists and the musicians constantly trying to taunt and one-up each other.

Max Raabe and the Palast Orchester gave one of the most humorous and enjoyable shows I have seen in a long time, full of sarcastic wit, upbeat swing, and Raabe’s fantastic showmanship that defined an entertaining ensemble. Plus, with two encores and dozens of songs, their performance never let up and made me question if two hours had really gone by just like that. For a while there, I felt as if I had traveled back in time.