The Music Center at Strathmore in Bethesda, Md. (a short drive from Washington, D.C.) is an exquisite, modern concert hall that hosts performances by international artists from all musical genres, but skews classical; after all, the venue’s partners include the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and The National Philharmonic. How sweet it was, then, to have French electronic pioneers Air make the Music Center a stop on this year’s twentyears tour; a “best of” celebration of the duo’s two decades of musical collaboration.
This Tuesday night (June 6th) was no typical rock show – no opening act, no merch table (where’s the vinyl?!), and the audience resting in comfortable, padded seats in areas marked Boxes, Grand or Upper Tiers (balconies schmalconies). And since Air is not a typical rock band, but influential innovators who’ve never been afraid to pull from a broad array of sources, from classical to sixties French pop, classic rock and worldly or ambient explorations, it was the perfect setting to enjoy the mix.
The 90-minute, 16-song setlist touched on much of the band’s catalog; their retro-yet-futuristic 1998 debut, Moon Safari, and 2004’s Talkie Walkie providing the bulk of the show’s set list with five songs each. One song ("Playground Love") from the soundtrack album for Sofia Coppola’s "The Virgin Suicides" and one relatively rare EP track (“J’ai dormi sous l’eau”) made the cut, along with four from 2001’s10 000 Hz Legend.
Air’s music is sometimes tagged as "easy listening" for its melodic, often trance-like qualities. That’s how the show began, with the ruminative “Venus,” and there were plenty of moments when you could lean back, close your eyes and let the lovely, synth-fueled, electro-acoustic sounds wash over you. But Nicolas Godin, alternating between guitars and a keyboard, and Jean- Benoît Dunckel, stationed like a mad scientist between two instruments loaded with keys and knobs, also know how to push into higher NRG territory with the aid of two support players, especially a superb, fun-to-watch drummer. Among the whirling bleeps and bloops, there was even a banjo (!) on the rousing instrumental “Alpha Beta Gaga," which also showcased Godin’s whistling skills.
Throughout, a carefully choreographed light show bathed the hall in brilliant colors and revolving spotlights, while three mirrored screens behind the quartet, who were all dressed in white, offered abstract visuals keyed to the songs. "J’ai dormi sous l’eau" (I slept underwater) was all blue light and waves (bien sur!), the green light bursts during "People In The City" were so intense they almost hurt, and oscillating voice graphs during "How Does It Make You Feel" reinforced the tune’s somewhat creepy, auto-tuned vocals.
After ending the main set with crowd favorite "Kelly Watch the Stars," Air returned for a terrific three-song encore — "Alone in Kyoto," "Sexy Boy" and "La Femme d’Argent" — that topped the night with energizing, propulsive rhythms and near-jazzy interplay among the musicians. Whatever musical heavy-hitters may have previously played the Music Center, Air proved that "twenty years" on, they’ve earned a spot on the same prestigious stage.
Just a few more dates remain on this, Air’s first American tour since 2010 before it wraps up in Los Angeles on June 25. On July 1, the band will begin a European tour in Germany that runs to mid-August.
Remaining twentyears Air American tour dates:
June 20 – Chicago, IL – Auditorium Theatre
June 23 – San Francisco, CA – The Masonic
June 24 – Santa Barbara, CA – Santa Barbara Bowl (click here for tickets)
June 25 – Los Angeles, CA – The Greek Theatre (click here for tickets)