By DAVID ANDERSON
One of the most famous performers you've never heard of, actor, composer, and veteran soft rock legend Herbert Grönemeyer is acknowledged by many as Germany's greatest musical talent. Currently wrapping up the 12-city I Walk: Live U.S. tour (amazingly, this performer's first-ever American run), Grönemeyer and a five-piece ensemble bring their soulful, cerebral sound to San Francisco on Friday.
Grönemeyer formed his first band at age 12, but gained real fame as an actor -- film buffs may recall his lead role in director Wolfgang Petersen's epic 1981 U-boat drama Das Boot. A decades-long music career since has yielded solid success, despite some ups and downs. The 1984 release of 4630 Bochum first won his music wider attention, with lyrics that celebrated the everyday life of citizens in the artist's native city in the industrial Ruhr winning praise from critics as "Germany's Bruce Springsteen." He also scored major compositions for the 2006 World Cup and Olympics, and for 2010's The American with George Clooney. To date, he has sold more than 18 million records. His Mensch (Human) from 2002 is still Germany's top-selling disc, outpacing even the U.S.-famous metal band Rammstein.
But for a Doors-influenced, 57-year-old hitmaker whose songs are often awash with acoustic nostalgia and melancholic longing -- and who sings in German -- fame is still relative. Despite his success, Grönemeyer, who has made a home out of the limelight in London for the last decade, remains largely unknown outside of German-speaking Europe.
Though he was the first foreign language artist to perform an "unplugged" concert for MTV in 1994 and received a TIME magazine humanitarian award in 2005, sales of the English versions of three previous discs tanked, and the U.S. dates of a 2007 tour were cancelled. Chalk it up to both a deliberate effort on this performer's part to avoid international celebrity, as well as to the eclectic, if quirky, musical tastes of Germans almost embarrassed by their own homegrown talent. Maybe it's no surprise from a nation that still imports pop stars like David Hasselhoff.
Grönemeyer's modest following on these shores will likely receive a boost from the I Walk disc -- his first U.S. release -- on his own Groenland label. It's a diverse reworking of previous material, with poignant anthems on the pitfalls of time and memory, plus hopeful resilience on the title track, which is new for the album. Not much is lost in translation.
Herbert Groenemeyer performs with Chi McLean. 9 p.m. Friday, Sept. 27, at Bimbo's 365 Club. $45-150. Co-presented with Goethe Institute - San Francisco.