I caught Air on the first night of the legendary Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Like most jazz festivals today, Montreux interprets 'jazz' rather liberally. Consequently, these slim former academics, both born in France in 1969, whose act can hardly be classified as jazz fit in perfectly. The Miles Davis Hall was packed and the audience revved up when the two unshaven co-leaders dressed in white entered the stage.
The music started with songs from their latest album, Love 2, with fantastic soundscapes created by the duo backed by the black-clad drummer. The first tune was 'Do the Joy' from the new album. The bass and drums laid out the heavy beat against which the Moog synthesizer played the superficially simple but memorable melody. It's hard to describe how good the beat was, but it immediately sucked into the mood everyone in the audience. For the diehard fans of Air (a category I readily include myself in) it hit us in all the right places. The bass vamp melded with the drums in a seamless groove, while the keyboards set the tone for things to come.
Air's music is often classified as electronica, but this is a gross simplification. Electronic instruments obviously do play a central role in the duo's music, but that is not necessarily the point. The point is that theirs is music that crosses boundaries, using elements from rock, pop, electronica and others. Their sound is uniquely their own. I've seen it compared to Pink Floyd and Tangerine Dream and others equally wide apart. There is no doubt that the two musicians have had their influences (like everyone else), but they have been quite varied (including the Carpenters, according to the musicians themselves). The music of Air was brought to a wider attention in Sophia Coppola's movie Lost in Translation and the duo gained popularity amongst hipsters. It's equally clear that their music is highly original, unlike anything else that I've come across.
Air (apart from the obvious, the letters are supposed to stand for amour, imagination, rêve) has been around for a decade and a half, since the time the two friends formed the duo in 1995. Nicolas Godin was a student of architecture in Paris, while Jean-Benoît Dunckel studied mathematics. Both had played in the band Orange before. In Air, they were able to create their own sound and vision, which is both intellectual and emotionally compelling. The music is imaginative and the sounds are amazingly strong. The melodies, sung primarily by Dunckel almost effeminately softly , are simple but invariably beautiful and memorable, like in the sweet pop song 'Heaven's Light' they performed in the set tonight.
Some tunes clearly reveal the origin of the duo. Like the experimental instrumental 'Be a Bee,' which despite its steady rock beat and 4/4 bass, somehow sounds so quintessentially French.
What boggles my mind is that still today, in 2010 when everything seems to be about hype and commercialism, a band that plays intellectual music, much of which is instrumental, can command such a following of people from different genders, countries and ages. It does give hope for the future.
'Tropical Disease,' with its complex structure and tempo changes, many layers of keyboards (that Dunckel mastered superbly in a live situation) and the deceivingly facile snippets of melody, is an example of the most unlikely hit song. Yet it completely enticed the audience in the Miles Davis Hall.
The stage setting was highly psychedelic. The groovy light show was reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey with swirling colours and black-and-white kinetic visions. The spaced out impression was further enhanced by Godin using the Vocoder, sounding like Hal, in his vocals (and occasionally thanking the audience, "Merci beaucoup," in between the tunes).
Throughout the concert, Dunckel in his white trousers, shirt and tie stood between his banks of keyboards, consisting of a white Wurlitzer electric piano, a string machine and several analogue synthesizers by legendary makers such as Moog and ARP. He swayed slightly while his hands were playing the keyboards ambidextrously on both sides simultaneously. The set was designed so that the slight man in white playing the keyboards would not be obscured by the instruments. He seemed completely content at filling the centre stage.
On the right side of the stage, the bearded Godin had his own set of period synthesizers (just two of them in a 70s style wobbly stand), which he'd use sparingly. But he focused on his bass and acoustic guitars. Especially as a bass player, Godin is fabulous. With no gimmicks, he would lay the foundation solid on his white Fender Mustang. He is also a highly musical player, who plays the bass guitar melodically and expressively, while never sacrificing the groove.
Both of the Frenchmen acted cool as cornichons during the entire concert. Once in a while, Dunckel allowed himself a small smile that someone might have interpreted as arrogant, but which most likely was just an expression of satisfaction of how well the concert was going and how it was received by the mixed audience. Between the songs, one of the five little American girls, barely 20, I guessed, standing next to me screamed to the gentlemen: "We love you, sexy boys!!!"
In a recent interview with Electronic Musician, Godin and Dunckel talked about their new own studio and their music. They observed how Love 2 is more natural, using more acoustic instruments (and of course analogue synthesizers) than their earlier efforts. This was obvious also in Montreux. The electronics played a key role, but the music never sounded pretentious or cold. On the contrary, the beat was real and the sounds naturally appealing.
One of the key strengths of Air is that they have an impeccable melodic sense. So often in today's pop, the musicians are skilful at their instruments, the sound is excellent and the production flawless. But the songs just don't cut it (perhaps it's understandable: after all, there are only twelve tones in the Western scale). That is not the case with Air. Some of the songs are rather simplistic ('Sing Sang Sung'), but still somehow smart; others are just simple, but masterly so. All are carefully crafted, melodically natural, and pleasing without exception.
Towards the end of the concert the mood intensified. When after 1.5 hours of non-stop ecstasy the show was over, there was no way the audience would allow the musicians to leave the stage. They didn't and we were treated to an ample serving of more of the good stuff.
When I finally exited the hall into the balmy night, it was close to midnight. It was impossible even to think about sleep right now, so I joined the thousands of others who had crowded into the lakeside park. The night by now was dark, the Alps looming gloomily in the background as the lights from the numerous stalls selling anything from Thai noodles to tattoos, from Tarot cards to wine from neighbouring vineyards, reflected on the lake's calm surface. I felt like walking on water or, rather, air.