Live: Air, Not Sucking
The life-size clear-plastic versions of Air were sadly absent
May 9, 2007
If you've never lived in DC, you're never going to be able to find your way around DC. It's a driver's nightmare: you're driving down some street, and you think you've got the grid figured out, but all of a sudden you're on some other street, and this one's named after a state or a dead president, and you have no idea where you're going or how to get back to the street you're supposed to be on. I can't even count how many times I've driven to the 9:30 Club, but I still get lost every time I drive there. The 9:30 Club is a DC institution, a place where you can still order Nachos of Ulysses, even though their booking now leans toward Keane and Paul van Dyk rather than the scattered remnants of the DC hardcore scene. In high school, I saw the Reverend Horton Heat there at least once, possibly more; these things blur. As far as DC institutions go, it's not even all that hard to find, but I still somehow find ways to not find it. And so DC might be the reason that I missed the entire first half of Air's 9:30 Club show earlier tonight; all these years and I'm still useless when it comes to finding my way around this town. Air pissed a whole lot of people off at Coachella this year when they started their set 40 minutes late, not the sort of thing you want to be doing at a meticulously coordinated multi-stage festival. Apparently that Coachella set was an aberration, though; they started on time tonight, and I wasn't there for it. In this case, though, I might have to thank the city of Washington, DC for the inconvenience. Half of an Air set, after all, is all you really need. And if it's the second half, all's the better, since you know you'll be hearing the hits, such as they are.
If you're going to see Air at the Theater of Madison Square Garden tomorrow night, I wouldn't necessarily recommend showing up late. For one thing, you'd miss the opening acoustic set from TV on the Radio, which will either be great or fascinatingly awful. For another, the Theater at MSG is practically custom-designed for this group. The ceiling's glowing pinpoint lights make the room look like a cheap spaceship set from a 70s sci-fi movie, and the seats promise to make the inevitable zone-out moments a whole lot more comfortable. In a crowded club, though, the threat of impending boredom is always very real with this band. When Air first emerged about ten years ago, their lush, wispy pillow-pop felt mysteriously urbane, like a transmission from a future race of Leisure Suit Larrys. That shock of the retro-new wore off a little while after their forbiddingly dark score for The Virgin Suicides, still maybe their most fully realized album. Since then, they've released some obnoxiously messy MOR prog (2001's 10,000Hz Legend) and some exquisite wallpaper (2004's Talkie Walkie). But their zeitgeist-moment has been over for years. These days, Justice is the big news in French dance music, and that duo's addiction to filters is all that keeps them from being Air's evil-twin polar opposites. Given that Air's orchestrated burble was already retro as hell when they were new, that makes the group something of a double-anachronism. Still, DC has love for Air; tickets for tonight's show cost $40, and still the venue filled up with people willing to dumb the fuck out for fundamentally drowsy music, a weirdly heartening sight.
That's especially impressive considering that the guys in Air don't actually do a whole lot onstage. Nicolas Godin hides behind an enormous bank of equipment. Jean-Benoit Dunckel dispassionately plucks at a guitar and wispily sings through a vocoder. Three backing musicians hide in the shadows and fill things out. One of those musicians is a drummer, pretty surprising considering that the group's bubbling wafts of sound have never been particularly concerned with rhythm. But that drummer actually made a good addition, upping those tracks' urgency and putting some meat on their bones. You wouldn't necessarily be wrong if you thought that "Kelly Watch the Stars" wouldn't really benefit from a lite-jungle breakdown, but that breakdown somehow didn't hurt the song either. And a little bit of urgency goes a long way when it comes to this group's effete lounge-pop; their light guy also deserves props for turning Godin and Dunckel into strobing feathery-haired silhouettes at the slow-build climax of the show-closing "La Femme D'Argent." Dunckel plays up his Frenchness the same way that, say, the Reverend Horton Heat always played up his Americanness. (Actual stage quote: "Thank you very much, merci. This next song is very romantique.") But that affectation never felt bloodless, especially since the beefed-up arrangements and dizzy lights kept things interesting for the forty minutes I was there.
I'm not sure whether a band that leans so hard on distance could maintain that level of interest over another forty. But the band's rippling, glimmering melodies felt just as inviting as they did back when I first heard them. A couple of days ago, I wrote that the current crop of French filter-metal producers tended to prize adrenaline over emotion. Air have always done just the opposite, letting their pretty melodies dissipate into the air without ever pushing them anywhere. There was something refreshing about that in 1998, and there still is now.
Voice review: James Hunter on Air's Pocket Symphony
Voice review: Nick Catucci on Air at Hammerstein Ballroom
Voice review: James Hannaham on Air's 10,000Hz Legend
Voice review: Kimbrew McLeod on Air's Premiers Symptomes