Kraftwerk Still Excite With Robotic Precision

German technovators boot up for their first live U.S. show since the '80s.

SAN FRANCISCO -- The four figures on the stage moved mechanically to the pulsing electro-beat of the 1978 dance club hit "The Robots." As the synthesized sound of the song bounced around the Warfield Theater on Sunday night, a capacity crowd undulated and whooped.

No one seemed to care that the band in the spotlight wasn't ... quite ... human.

It was the first American concert since the '80s by Kraftwerk, the founding fathers of techno music. But the real quartet -- on this one song of their four-song encore -- was lurking backstage. Out front, four robotic doppelgangers, flapping their metallic arms and swiveling on turrets, had replaced the musicians. The robots, greeted by a burst of cheers from the audience, "performed" in a frenzy of strobe lights as the chant "We are the robots!" emanated from the speakers.

What else would you expect from the visionary German band that created The Man-Machine -- one of its string of hit albums during the '70s and '80s? Virtually every strain of synthesizer-based pop music that followed in the wake of Kraftwerk's 1971 debut was influenced by their rhythmic, minimalist, purely electronic sound. Whether it was hip-hop, house or new-wave rock, industrial, jungle or ambient, Kraftwerk almost certainly wrote the first program. Afrika Bambaataa, C+C Music Factory and Depeche Mode are just a few of the artists that owe them, big time.

Despite a lack of new material since the release of the Electric Cafe album in 1986, original Kraftwerkers Florian Schneider and Ralf Hutter (and two compatriots) began a nine-city, 11-show world tour last week in Tokyo.

Shows on the tour have sold out swiftly, indicative of the high regard that pop-music aficionados have for the low-key, high-tech ensemble. Fans on hand at the Warfield included industrial-rocker Jack Dangers of Meat Beat Manifesto, Smithereens singer/songwriter Pat DiNizio and keyboardist/producer Eric Drew Feldman, known for his work with PJ Harvey, Captain Beefheart and Frank Black.

For the bulk of their compelling, two-hour show at the Warfield, the players -- wearing dark jumpsuits, their hair close-cropped or gone -- manned four keyboard stations in front of four large screens. Schneider "sang" in an electronically treated voice as the quartet played or triggered the sequences to a string of Kraftwerk's international hits. A testament to how far they took pop music and how little it has progressed beyond their innovations, the show seemed completely contemporary.

They began with "Computer World," the throbbing title track from their prescient 1981 album.

Songs were immediately recognized and rewarded with applause by the crowd, although a few numbers were retooled with updated effects and beats. For instance, "Autobahn," Kraftwerk's 1974 breakthrough American single, retained its careening forward motion and cheery chorus but had a deeper hip-hop groove.

Throughout the performance, the screens behind each player presented stark words and images perfectly in sync with the music: bicycle-race footage for the lilting, breathless "Tour De France"; '60s fashion-show newsreels for the slinky, ominous reverie "The Model"; radiation-warning symbols for the sinister, cautionary "Radio-Active"; and a station-to-station travelogue for the chugging, relentless "Trans-Europe Express." Sound was superb from beginning to end, with pristine clarity and dizzying stereo movement.

As seen in their tongue-in-cheek use of audioanimatronics during "The Robots," these guys are far from humorless. In fact, their first encore was a performance of "Pocket Calculator," with all four of them out from behind their banks of synthesizers and playing the composition with small, hand-held triggering devices. One of the four even swung his remote controller by its extension cord like Roger Daltrey of the Who swinging a microphone around his head.

The finale was "Musique Non-Stop." The bandmembers had put on fluorescent green-striped body suits that mapped the contours of each wearer's anatomy. In the black-light glow, they could have been androids or -- yep, you guessed it -- robots. And as each left the stage, one by one, the music continued as programmed until the house lights went up.