Entertainers of the Year: Daft Punk

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WRITTEN BY
Andrew Vontz

Nine hours into October's Vegoose festival, the immortal five-note melody from Close Encounters of the Third Kind drifts out over the grassy field at Las Vegas' Sam Boyd Stadium, and the crowd of 30,000 is packed so tightly it can barely move. The night's headliners, Daft Punk (Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo, henceforth referred to by his nickname, Guy-Man), are led by roadies to a control booth in the middle of a 22-foot-wide, 18-foot-tall, three-ton steel pyramid hidden behind a curtain at center stage. They're decked out in their customary automaton-biker gear: face-obscuring helmets and leather jackets. As the curtain draws back, only their helmets and torsos are visible inside the pyramid, and blips of light pulse across blackness on the LED video screens covering its base. A massive lattice of glowing tubes serves as a second tier of lighting, and a large black curtain covered in diodes provides the stage's backdrop. "Robot Rock," off the duo's 2005 album, Human After All, replaces Close Encounters, and when the first drumbeat kicks in and Daft Punk pump their glove-covered fists, the crowd form pyramids with their fingers, bouncing in unison with such ecstatic violence that the scene looks like a soccer riot. In the year 3000.

All this might sound like a particularly vivid '90s-rave flashback. But many of the lucky 67,800 who witnessed the eight-date North American leg of the Daft Punk Alive 2007 tour -- alternatively a provocative examination of the tenuous relationship between technology and humanity and the most mind-bending rock extravaganza since Pink Floyd's pig took flight -- are evangelical and slavish in their devotion. Two fans from Milwaukee, Caitlin Kliesmet and Margaret Kim, wear homemade, elaborately rendered robot helmets. Julia Brindle, 25, who caught August's New York date on a whim and was so impressed she flew to Vegas for this final show of the tour, says: "I'm not a big electronic-music fan, but this is a transcendent religious experience." And she is hardly the only relative electronica neophyte to finally see the (strobe) light -- since the North American tour began in July, digital sales of the duo's 2001 single "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger," which Kanye West sampled for "Stronger," have rocketed from 1,000 per week to between 5,000 and 7,000, while the new Daft Punk Alive 2007 CD and DVD attempt to pack the sensory overload to go. Somehow, the hottest electronic music act of 1999 has reconquered a mainstream American audience that traditionally prefers its rock stars to have instruments and, well, faces.

"We compare it to a Broadway musical," Bangalter, 31, says backstage after the show. "There's a lot of people involved, and every night is a different performance, even though it's the same music and the same show. But it's also like a movie in that you focus on an experience rather than the ego of the performer." In their civvies, Daft Punk look like underfed art students, all skinny jeans and pristine vintage Nikes. Bangalter has close-cropped hair and wears a turtleneck sweater under a leather jacket. The long-haired Guy-Man, 32, whose English isn't as fluent, nods in agreement, Silencieux Bob to Bangalter's Jay.

Developed early last year for what they thought would be a one-off gig at Coachella, the Alive spectacle is as high-concept as it is high-tech, integrating ideas about evolutionary theory with the band's own iconography -- the pyramid first appeared in their 2005 video for "Technologic." Bangalter and Guy-Man -- and yes, it really is them up there, although the fact that the audience can't know for sure lends the experience its convention-tweaking aura -- communicate with one another via mics and monitors built into the helmets, remixing on the fly from inside the pyramid. Wireless Ethernet links the Minimoogs and virtual synths at their metallic fingertips to offstage custom computers that have the processing power of nine tricked-out Mac G5s. While the musical and visual elements are scripted and presequenced, both Daft Punk and their lighting designer can improvise around set cues. Every show has the same 80-minute run time with the same primary builds and breaks, yet there's still room to manipulate the beats based on crowd reaction, which generally includes stomping, writhing, popping- and-locking, screaming, and -- tonight, anyway -- passing out.

"Contrary to belief, they don't just push play," insists Paul Hahn, the head of Daft Punk's production company and Alive's behind-the-scenes mastermind. "By changing the mix, they can change people's perception of the visuals. It's like a magic trick -- giving away how it's done would take away from the experience. But the robot personas open up creative possibilities, whereas if we had put Guy-Man and Thomas up there as themselves, it would be this megalomaniacal thing, this gigantic fascist's pulpit."

As the show progresses, the pyramid's visuals escalate from minimal eight bit-style lines to complex 3-D geometric patterns, culminating in a racing montage of human faces. By the finale, "One More Time," the robot suits themselves are part of the light show, electroluminescent piping making the duo look like Tron characters come to life.

"It's not just performing and creating music and images that makes the show," says Bangalter. "It's God, in the middle of 30,000 people."

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