Can were the most flexible act of the so-called krautrock explosion, equally as mesmerizing in short, ecstatic art-rock bursts as they were in epic, sprawling, 20-minute jams. The Cologne-based group deftly matched the jammy psychedelic rock of Amon Düül, the hypnotic motorik of Neu!, and the electronic meditations of Tangerine Dream, and that’s before the mid 1970s, when the band infused its sound with funk and Afrobeat. For Can, capturing a specific sound was secondary to the idea of music as a kinetic expression of freedom.
Onstage, they were even more unbound, both in their confidence as psychic improvisers and in the knowledge that transfixed audiences would stick around for a second set if the first one honked. That much is apparent from the first two releases in the mid-’70s Can live series, Live in Stuttgart 1975 and Live in Brighton 1975. Recorded in the wake of Damo Suzuki’s departure two years earlier, both are expansive documents from the pioneering kosmische outfit just figuring shit out in real time, skronking the light fantastic, kicking ass and blowing minds across six LP sides.
Which makes it particularly puzzling that the third entry in the series, Live in Cuxhaven 1976, takes an approach so at odds with an actual Can live set. None of its four tracks—untitled and simply numbered, as before, in German—are longer than eight and a half minutes in length. The vast stretches of audacious, sometimes uncomfortable, interplay are absent. There’s no fat here, but that’s precisely what ardent carnivores insist makes the rib eye delicious.
It even begins in medias res, “Eins” fading in with Can mid-groove. The funky interplay between human metronome Jaki Liebezeit and guitarist Michael Karoli, dispensing quick, chunky wah-wah strums, is a bridge to that year’s yet-to-be-recorded Flow Motion. That album, which introduced reggae and disco rhythms to a (mostly) unsatisfied cadre of critics and fans, is a clear departure, and here, it’s fascinating to witness the band shedding its skin. But without the context of what preceded this stretch of the show, it’s as if we’ve purchased a ticket with a partially obstructed view.
What’s most compelling about live Can recordings from this period is the way the band constructs an improvised jam from the ground up. On “Drei,” Can lays out a ragged framework of Soon Over Babaluma opener “Dizzy Dizzy,” even featuring rare (for this era) snippets of vocals from bassist Holger Czukay. As the rhythm section locks in, Karoli wails, droning and arpeggiating on his guitar before briefly dropping out, about three minutes in. He returns with fury, unfurling a demonic guitar from out of nowhere, which sends “Drei” spiraling into another dimension. Karoli spends the rest of the jam winding around the melody, approaching it from every angle: playfully funky riffs, proto-shoegaze walls of sound, squeaky jazz fusion runs. Satisfying as it is, “Drei” also gestures to the Can vault—filled, no doubt, with further explorations, unheard and thick with dust.