Imagine how it would feel to have one of the rock’s most iconic figures personally invite your band to play New York’s famed Madison Square Garden Theater just because he wants to watch you perform. For mere mortals, the chances of that happening are about the same as Tony Soprano dunking over Shaquille. But, then, Air are hardly mere mortals.
Hot off a stunning Chicago show (reviewed last month by PopMatters’ Eddie Ciminelli) and at the behest of Bowie, France’s comic cowboys (guitarist Nicolas Godin and keyboardist Jean-Benoit Dunckel) upped the ante in honor of New York’s inaugural Highline Festival. Named after the elevated rail structure that travels through the Meatpacking District of New York’s trendy West Chelsea area, the Highline Festival was a 10-day jamboree of music, comedy, film, and art produced by David Binder and Josh Wood as a way to celebrate the diversity of New York culture while also raising awareness for an initiative to turn the section of raised NYC rail into a public space.
Binder and Wood chose for this first festival someone who, in their minds, was “multidisciplinary, lived in New York, had a very strong aesthetic point of view, [and] was very interested in nurturing new talent.” Thus Ziggy Stardust received a call to arms. “I love the word curate,” Bowie told a New York Times reporter with a sarcastic chuckle. “One of the definitions is someone who overseas a zoo.”
Another definition of curator is a holy man entrusted with the ability to cure the soul. With six slots to fill, Bowie used his space-oddity powers to summon a healthy mix of mainstream and avant-garde acts. Bearing a penchant for the eclectic, he reached out to Air—fresh off the release of their new transcendental opus, Pocket Symphony—in hopes that Godin and Dunckel would make new fans out of New York’s socialites.
The show got underway with a run through euphoric instrumental “Radian” from 2001’s 10,000 Hz Legend. Purple and green lights accentuated the soothing ambience while illuminating Godin and Dunckel—each wearing all white outfits, the pAir resembled pixies from another planet. Dunckel then kept the crowd sedated as his fingers pressed a sequence of keys on one of his two specially engineered synthesizers—his introduction to “Venus.” While “Venus” sounded a lot like what one might hear at Disney World’s Tomorrow Land, the next song, “Once Upon A Time,” from the new album, elicited a more emotionally charged sound, especially as Dunckel’s beautiful piano solo gave way to Godin’s harmonizing vocals.
Despite Air’s somber undertone, the lighting combined with the instrumental arrangements, creating a hypnotic pull that left audience members breathing hard after each song. The trance-like vibe continued as Pocket Symphony’s “Napalm Love” projected sonic ecstasy through the two enormous speaker columns on each side of the stage. Reverberating throughout the auditorium, “Napalm Love’s” final chorus—“How tough is your love?”—echoed love’s resilience. Godin’s suave, bass-driven “Talisman” (off 1998’s Moon Safari) then redirected the sound, teetering between minimalism and Jazz fusion. Finding room for improvisation, Dunckel layered the song with euphoric tones that blossomed into an enchanted version of Talkie Walkie’s “Cherry Blossom Girl.”
Other highlights included Pocket Symphony’s “Mer Du Japon” (meaning “Sea of Japan”), which was illuminated by a backdrop that resembled a night sky. “People in the City,” featured Godin’s digitized voice and rocking guitar distortions, and “Kelly Watch The Stars” was closed out by a pounding wall of sensory stimulation. Dunckel and Godin saved the most famous, if not necessarily best, for last with an encore set that included Talkie Walkie’s riveting “Alone in Kyoto,” Moon Safari’s breakthrough single, “Sexy Boy,” and the spacey crowd favorite “La Femme D’Argent” (meaning “Silver Lady).
Air remains a mysterious group. For nearly a decade, Dunckel and Godin have been cultivating emotional music that can easily be the soundtrack to a person’s life. So OK, maybe they are just a pAir of mere mortals after all, after seeing them up-close and personal, there’s no question: their performance, their spiritually cleansing songs, are simply divine.