Can Duo Back With Experimental Soundscapes

Members of seminal German prog-rock band return noisily to stage.

LOS ANGELES -- Perhaps they should have played under their original band's name.

Perhaps that would have made the difference. Then again, maybe not.

Although a $20 cover charge doesn't seem too much to demand for an evening of iconic German experimental-rock from two musical pioneers, it seems to have been a bit rich for L.A.'s music fans.

Considering their wide influence on progressive rock and the techno sounds of today, Kenji "Damo" Suzuki and Michael Karoli -- two seminal members of the obscure, yet massively influential '70s rock band Can -- played to a relatively sparse gathering at Spaceland on Wednesday night.

Luckily, those who did show up for the gig -- a stop on the act's current six-city North American tour -- were extremely dedicated fans, with enough enthusiasm to make up for the poor turnout. Not surprisingly, perhaps, many in the crowd looked old enough to have caught Can the first time around, more than two decades ago.

They weren't disappointed with the new incarnation -- it was pure experimental bliss from the word go.

The first set from the duo was preceded by background classical-music, which faded into the sound of flowing water. Then, in what could have been a soundcheck but probably wasn't, Karoli meandered on to the stage, picked up his violin and squeaked out a few seemingly random notes. They were joined by plucking and tuning sounds from guitarist Alex Schoenert, bassist Mandjao Fati and drummer Thomas Hops until a song began to take shape. It was at this point that Suzuki -- all five feet of him, with long hair, black glasses and a Fu Manchu mustache -- made his appearance.

"He looks like that Japanese cult-leader Shoko Asahara, from Aum Shinrikio," whispered Patty Castillo, who runs Delirium/Tremens, an art gallery in Echo Park. "The one whose followers set off the poison in the subway."

Wearing striped pants that could have been cut from a circus tent, Suzuki looked to have less charisma than the noted cult-guru. But in the range of vocal sounds he can produce, he well may be without peer.

Suzuki and Karoli, supported by a three-piece band, played two sets, adding up to nearly two hours of proto-techno sound, and the audience was riveted. "I love Can," said Eddie Ruscha, a former member of the band Maids of Gravity. "I wouldn't miss this for anything."

Chairs and barstools filled up early. Whether it was in keeping with artsy European tradition or just the latest in Gap fashions, almost everyone was clad in beige and black. Spaceland bartender Jorge Ledezna, recently voted the best in Los Angeles, swept his practiced eye over the crowd. "Ten-to-one ratio of men to women," he summed up.

"It's history in the making," Spaceland proprietor Mitchell Frank said.

History, if not hits, is something of which Can have made plenty.

Their exploratory mix of rock, jazz and sonic psychedelia -- which they first unleashed in the late '60s -- has been tagged as a precursor to progressive (or "prog") rock, as well as a direct influence on such later bands as the Fall, Public Image Ltd. and Einsturzende Neubauten. Can-style electronic experiments have recently come back into vogue, audible in the work of the techno duo the Chemical Brothers and even trip-hopper Tricky.

Singer Suzuki, 48, and guitarist/violinist Karoli, 50, were key players on what some call Can's most powerful albums, Tago Mago (1971) and Future Days (1973).

Over the years, Suzuki has not lost much of his voice. He sang one phrase, in fact, just like Pakistani qawwali artist Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the next like blues great John Lee Hooker. He used his voice as an instrument, singing sounds instead of lyrics. When opting for words, he'd shift from French to German to Japanese.

He ranged from whispery soft-volume to balls-out metal-shrieking.

It was so out there, so on the edge, that it was hard to fathom at times how some of this noise-infused jamming could have paved the way for the more mainstream prog-rock sounds of Genesis and Rush.

During its second set, the band was geared more toward rock, and slammed hard through some old Can standards, most notably a long, driving rendition of "Mother Sky," from the 1970 LP Soundtracks.

The Karoli and Suzuki experience may have been on the artsy side, but if some of the members of the audience were any indication, you didn't have to be an art-rock aficionado to enjoy it. Two pompadoured rockabilly guys and their vintage-clad girlfriends showed up after learning that the Reverend Horton Heat show across town was sold out.

And they stayed for the whole thing.