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Tuesday, September 2, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 78.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Max Raabe performs vibrant vintage jazz with a stone-faced expression
The debonair oddball
on
Raabe swims in surreal charm.
Raabe swims in surreal charm.

At first listen, it seems that German singer Max Raabe and his big band, Palast Orchester, are to the grand tradition of jazz what a watery aperitif is to a 12-course meal. Yet there's a surreal charm to their take on the jazz and pop pantheon, idealized and filtered through old movie musicals and debonair showmanship.

The point of a release like 2008's live album Heute Nacht Oder Nie emerges when Raabe gets around to his jokes.

"Men and women represent completely different forms of life," he says between songs, in his erudite but wooden-sounding English. "Nevertheless, many women tolerate a male being in their domicile."

He then proceeds to soak up the Carnegie Hall audience's genteel laughter like a Nilla wafer in warm milk.

Whether you enjoy this or can't stand it, you will inevitably resort to the adjective "droll." By all appearances, the jokes are scripted and rehearsed. A Washington Post reviewer once commented that "even Raabe's spoken banter with the audience was reproduced word for word."

Watching Raabe sing is a bit like watching the Who's late bassist, John Entwistle, play. You hear a busy flurry of fine musicianship, whether Raabe is cooing through the "heeaaa-ven" of Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek" or rippling through the guttural, German-language lyrics of "Wenn Die Elisabeth," but you see complete deadpan. Raabe's arms hang motionless at his side, and his facial expression shows only the slightest hints of emotion. Like Entwistle, he seems completely at ease with this rather chilly exterior.

Raabe's performance style can sometimes clash with his admirably broad repertoire. His cover of Tom Jones' "Sex Bomb" seems calculated to disturb, with nasal exclamations of "aaah!" and "ooh, baby!" He's not funky, sweaty or spontaneous. Expect something between Top Hat, Mark Sandrich's screwball comedy starring Fred Astaire, and the strudel scene from Inglourious Basterds when Raabe & Palast Orchester perform at Overture Hall on April 8.

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