Max Raabe jokes that he and his band will be more than ready for their first performance in Atlanta.
“We have our warm-up concert at Carnegie Hall,” he says. “We’ll use it to be perfect in Atlanta.”
It’s nice to know that Raabe and his 12-piece Palast Orchester will be so well prepared for their appearance at the Rialto Center for the Arts on March 8. But chances are they’d sound good with or without that little warm-up gig a few days beforehand. The Berlin-based musicians’ exactingly perfectionist approach to reproducing the music of the ’20s and ’30s has been a constant since the group first formed in 1985.
Raabe has made a point of seeking out the original arrangements for the group to play. “You can still find these arrangements in archives or in cellars of libraries or in a flea market, or maybe an old musician has some,” he says. “That’s why it sounds like the original bands in the ’30s.”
From “Cheek to Cheek” and “Singing in the Rain” to “Bei Mir Bist Du Schön” and “Für Frauen ist das kein Problem,” the group performs songs in English and German (some, like “Falling in Love Again,” were popular on both sides of the Atlantic) with a meticulous aesthetic.
“We take the music as seriously as a composition by Brahms or Beethoven or Mozart,” he says.
He and most of the members of his band met as students in Berlin while studying classical music; Raabe was planning to become an operatic baritone. But his group started moonlighting playing popular music, and their rigorous approach, along with Raabe’s deadpan humor and world-weary, elegant stage persona, proved to be an instant hit.
Raabe’s admiration for the era’s music extends back well before his college days. Although he initially grew up listening to his older brother’s music — Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Stevie Wonder — a chance discovery of an old 78 record, a novelty instrumental called “I’m Crazy About Hilde,” in the back of his parents’ cupboard led to his interest in the music he now plays.
“It was the way the musicians played, especially the trumpets and trombones,” says Raabe. “They had a special vibrato and a special way to play instruments, totally different to the ’70s, of course. But even though it was a funny song, there was a sentimental subnote somehow. It touched me, this melanchly melody and the elegance of the composition and the interesting arrangement.”
He starting buying records at the flea market in Münster, discovering more bands whose songs he added to his repertoire. Among his favorites is the Comedian Harmonists, the most popular singing group of pre–World War II era and the subject of Barry Manilow’s musical Harmony, recently at the Alliance Theatre.
Raabe’s hobby eventually turned into a career and — as as one might have said in the’ 20s — a pretty swell one at that. Critics tend to comment on the music almost as much as they do on Raabe’s signature stage persona — both ironic and earnest, poised and, most of all, perfectly still.
“If you see performers from the past, they’re moving around like singers today,” he says. “They sing about the moon, they look up to the sky. They sing about love, they touch their hearts. You can’t find many singers either from the past or today who just stand in front of the mic and do nothing. That was my own thing. But there was no idea or philosophy behind it. I’m just a boring person. I think it’s enough to stand there and to sing. That’s all. But of course, that’s powerful in a way.”
Even though the group posed in their stylish period look for a spread in Vogue in December 2009 shot by Annie Leibowitz, Raabe insists that persona and style have always been secondary.
His timeless, elegant wardrobe is, he says, “just a kind of uniform for musicians . . . I think the music is timeless, too. There’s a timeless elegance and a timeless humor in it. The music is still the most important thing in the evening.”