Kraftwerk Metropolis, Montreal QC - April 24, 2004

Never underestimate the influence of Kraftwerk, not just on music in general, but in Montreal in particular. After all, Senor Coconut sold out this same 2,500-capacity venue at last year's Mutek festival by peddling meringue makeovers of Kraftwerk hits. From Men Without Hats to Mutek, Montreal is where Euro electro-pop has never gone out of style, just evolved — or not, considering how contemporary these Kraftwerk chestnuts sounded. It's little surprise, then, that the electro-baroque opening strains of the evening's most obscure selection — 1975's "Radioaktivitat" — were greeted with raised fists and a deafening roar that would have drowned out a Habs playoff victory. For a split second, you'd think you were witnessing Lynyrd Skynyrd live in Alabama, if it weren't for a few contextual changes: a) the predominance of bald guys in leather jackets; b) the absence of any guitars or drums; and c) the blue glow of digital cameras replacing the beloved lighter in the timeworn tradition of an audience's self-illumination. Otherwise, the band that was once so threatening to rock-ist traditions delivered a two-and-a-half hour performance that was as compelling as it could possibly be, considering the inanimate forms of the four principals behind identical keyboard consoles. It's telling that the crowd was even more excited when the band disappeared from the stage altogether for one of the encores, replaced by their doppelganger robots (to sing "We Are the Robots," of course), which are the Kraftwerk-ian equivalent of Iron Maiden's Eddie. The third encore found them back on stage in Tron-like body suits with neon green veins. But for the most part, they dressed in bankers' black suits, black ties and red shirts, with heads eerily lit while widescreen projections illustrated each individual song with alternately gorgeous and ridiculous images. A fierce competition for the evening's campiest moment was won by the primitive animation of a large finger that punched out a melody over a '80s clip-art calculator while Ralf Hutter barked: "I'm the operator with my pocket calculator! I am adding! And subtracting!" (And as is the Montreal norm, when the ESL Krauts translated the phrase into French, the room went fucking nuts.) Whether or not that song's 1981 naiveté was intentionally hilarious — being the stoic Germans that they are, it's near impossible to tell — there's no denying Kraftwerk's archaic charm. It's in the way Hutter cups his hand to his mouth to sing every line; even though he's wearing a headset microphone, it looks like he's hollering his futuristic odes across the Alps. For all of their forward-thinking electronics, Kraftwerk are classicists at heart: the band who spawned Detroit techno owes a large debt to Bach; the group who boasted, "I program my own computer!" is just as fascinated with the sheer simplicity of the bicycle, the original man-machine. They ask us to marvel not only at the latest software for their laptops but at technology that's too easily taken for granted in this post-post-modern age — whether it's the majesty of railroads ("Trans Europe Express), the sleekness of the superhighway ("Autobahn"), or the concept of a band like Kraftwerk itself.