When word started going around that last night’s Phoenix show, at Madison Square Garden, might include “special guests,” the consensus in our area was that it’d be either Daft Punk or Air, two acts with which Phoenix has long-running connections. And while Air remain lovely, their appearance at a Phoenix gig in 2010 would not be all that “special.” So would it really be Daft Punk? Who are not exactly often-seen? Who have been away for a while now, presumably hard at work on the soundtrack to Tron, which comes out in two months? The French robot duo, in the (metal and leather) flesh?
It was. And here is something worth saying: Even when you expect to see Daft Punk, it is still amazing to see the lights come up on them — or at least on the silver and gold robot-biker helmets and the memorable samples we’ve all agreed represent them. (Here is some shaky cellphone video footage of that moment, around the 2:58 mark.) They’ve managed to create something that iconic and implausible. Some people react to seeing those helmets the way you’d react if a fictional character showed up in the room — as if Count Chocula and E.T. were dropping by to toss in a few saxophone solos. Even people who’d never heard of Daft Punk were wowed by it: After all, there were people dressed like robots onstage, and everyone else was thrilled about it!
So that was the big finish. They teased us with a little “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.” They slid over into a little “Around the World.” They added some extra thump to Phoenix’s breakout single, “1901,” which I’m surprised was still audible over the sound of thumbs tapping tweets on smartphones. A sort of victory lap ensued, and then there was Phoenix at the front of the stage, taking a bow with a couple of shiny black robot-men in their midst.
It’s an easy and sensible match, after all, and not just because the two acts go way back. The men in Phoenix have always seemed to me like they just stepped out of some upscale romantic comedy — like they should be telling you about their PhDs in classics, or how they used to model a little but found it silly, and they’re mostly working on fixing up their sculpting studios out in the woods. Their first encore at MSG involved popping up in the middle of the crowd to do a few gentle acoustic songs in a tight circle, including an oldie in French. And this, I imagine, is how they pull off some of the most sweatless guitar music ever to work a huge venue so well. They don’t do chest-beating, arm-waving, or high drama; they’re not shouting to the back seats. Just a kind of breezy, stylish cool — the kind of cool that knows how to work a button-down. The stuff that makes their music big enough to thrill a big crowd all comes from the DNA of dance music, not rock: It’s in momentum, rushes and builds, a steady thump. Daft Punk fit in easily. And their clothes are easier to get excited about.
The rest of the bill turned out to be a treat, too. The San Diego outfit Wavves probably shouldn’t have been playing MSG — the main selling point of their noisy pop-punk is that front man Nathan Williams is the most dreamily bratty kid in the indie world, blissed out and snotty at the same time — because it’s difficult to convey “I don’t give a fuck” stonerisms in a room this big. And yet, by the end of a short set, they had sort of managed. Following them came the Brooklyn band Dirty Projectors, whose music can get so rigorously complex and florid that it’s almost dangerous in a live setting. If anything’s off — the wrong sound mix, the wrong tempo, anything — it starts to sound like a mess. But the band has one head-turning trick that always amazes: three women singing ambitious hocketed parts, where each one’s voice winds around and fills the gaps in the others’. If anything matched the amazement of seeing Daft Punk onstage, it was Dirty Projectors’ blasts of voice on “Beautiful Mother” — pretty on record, but jaw-dropping live. No helmets, though.