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Kraftwerk / March 15, 2004 / Dublin (Olympia Theatre)

The first ever Irish concert by the German electronica pioneers Kraftwerk was less a pop gig than a piece de resistance of multimedia performance art that was, from conception to execution, perfect in every way.

The quartet of statuesque Krafts-men who stood imperiously on stage looked more like they were here to sell insurance or discuss an application for an overdraft than perform highlights from one of the most influential and innovative back catalogs in popular music.

It's true that only Ralf Hutter and Florian Schneider remain from the original Kraftwerk lineup that sprang from the Ruhr Valley seemingly fully formed in the early 1970s. But it's also fair to say that the pair has been the creative hub of the group for decades. The unique vision that has so beguiled fans over the years was still very much in evidence on Monday at Dublin's Olympia Theatre; indeed, the concert sold out within a few hours of being announced.

The arresting visuals and imaginative graphics on the giant video screen behind the band consistently provided the perfect complement to the by turns pulsating, hypnotic and graceful music that filled the room and transfixed the capacity audience standing cheek-by-jowel as if in a trance.

The two-hour set's opening salvo came with a 21st century take on "The Man-Machine," before the recent "Expo 2000" single was given an airing. The first gut roar of recognition and approval came, though, with the title track of last year's concept album based on the almost mythical (but recently sullied) European cycling race, the Tour de France.

This was followed by the group's famous homage to the great German highways, "Autobahn." The intro was marked by the band's distinctive brand of subtle humor, in that it consisted of a car engine spluttering as it unsuccessfully tries to rev into action, whereas the album version's intro contains a smooth, trouble-free engine start-up. Was the band making an oblique reference to the contrast between studio perfection and the random, uncertain nature of live performance? Or was the implication that time inevitably takes its toll on even the most sturdy and well-engineered of man's inventions?

Either way, the visuals were as mind-blowing as the music: a quaint old advertisement for the equally mythical Volkswagen Beetle automobile displayed a cartoon image of happy, smiling Herrs and Frauleins enjoying a ride in the beige beauty.

"The Model" -- perhaps Kraftwerk's best known song -- also got a big cheer and its genius melody and deadpan lyrics still worked their magic. "Neon Lights" exemplified one of the great qualities of the band: the ability to see beauty in even the most mundane, utilitarian aspects of modern life. In this way, "Autobahn" (extolling the virtues of a long, featureless road), "Neon Lights" (extolling the virtues of bright street lamps) and "Trans Europe Express" (extolling the virtues of a train) bear comparison to that pivotal scene "American Beauty," where an awestruck teenager films a white plastic bag dancing in the wind.

Kraftwerk too make us look (and listen) closer. "Sellafield" was a spoken word piece that boomed out of a vocoder and listed genuinely disturbing facts about the potentially fatal emissions that spew out of England's most notorious nuclear reprocessing plant on a daily basis. Moreover, the lyrics were all printed in large block letters on the giant video screen, hammering the point home.

As it segued into the anti-nuclear song "Radioactivity," the crowd let out another roar. This may have been because it is common knowledge here that there is a town only a few miles north of Dublin where the incidence of cancer and leukemia is notably higher than the national norm. To boot, a small percentage of the fish in the Irish Sea are radioactive on account of Sellafield's close proximity to the Emerald Isle, in whose waters it is said to dump its radioactive waste. Indeed, hearing "Sellafield" was like being kicked in the solar plexus.

A light-hearted selection of songs from Kraftwerk's concept album about computers leavened the mood considerably during the encores. The video image, repeated over and over, of a finger pressing down on a giant calculator was totemic of the band's career-long fascination with the way earthlings interact with technology. A bright red light had by now started flashing on each of the black ties worn by Hutter, Schneider and company in a rhythmic pattern.

The marriage of man and machines was brought to the level of high art during "The Robots." A curtain was rolled back to reveal a quartet of disconcerting AI robot replicants, each of which had a life-like head that bore a striking resemblance to each respective band member. The sight of those bobbing heads and gently turning robotic arms was as strange and as freakish a sight as you're ever likely to see at a rock concert. Looking back, one has to pinch one's self to make sure that the whole evening was not some weird, fantastic dream.

Here is Kraftwerk's set list:

Vocoder intro
"The Man-Machine"
"Expo 2000"
"Tour de France 2003"
"Tour de France"
"The Model"
"Neon Lights"
"Trans Europe Express"

Encore 1:
"Numbers"/"Computer World"
"It's More Fun To Compute"/"Homecomputer"
"Pocket Calculator"

Encore 2:
"The Robots"

Encore 3:
"Elektro Kardiogramm"
"Aero Dynamik"
"Musique Non Stop"

-- Nick Kelly, Dublin

Copyright 2004 Billboard