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Live review: Air at Disney Hall [Corrected]

March 29, 2010 |  1:07 pm

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Twelve years since the release of its debut album, “Moon Safari,” Air has  somehow become easy to take for granted.

Now five eclectic albums removed from that record’s influential mix of soulful electronics and shimmering pop that made it a staple of dorm room seductions in the late '90s and beyond, the French duo of Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin came to Disney Hall in support of their latest album, “Love 2,” which came out to surprisingly little fanfare toward the end of last year.

But if this was any indication of the band’s flagging support, there was no evidence of it in the sold-out and enthusiastic crowd Sunday night. Joined by drummer Alex Thomas, Air entered to an insistent electronic pulse that segued into “Do the Joy,” an anthemic yet vaguely ominous blend of growling bass and vintage sci-fi synths that hinted at the new album’s invitingly live-sounding direction.

[For the record: An earlier version of this post said Air's drummer at Disney Hall was Joey Waronker. Alex Thomas played drums for Air at this performance.]

Air was backed by a pair of stacked video screens that often showed variously illuminated takes on the band’s name, giving the evening a stripped-down feel -- an interesting contrast for a group that once poked fun at its prog-rock leanings by wearing capes onstage. Crisply dressed in an all-white shirt and tie, Dunckel led the band through the sleek, spy movie theme-in-waiting of “Be a Bee,” which rode an insistent krautrock beat and biting keyboards that resembled a guitar being mistreated by a power drill.

Yet given that this is Air, a band rivaled only by countrymen Daft Punk in terms of intermingling its identity with its electronics, the key of the evening was the group's striking ability to capture a mood. Built around a gently strummed acoustic guitar, “Venus,” from 2004’s “Talkie Walkie,” captured the euphoric and swooning first moments of love, a feeling that could be considered the band’s specialty.

In keeping with the theme, “Love,” a deceptively simple highlight from the band’s latest album, traffics in  the same sense of euphoria through breathy, nearly devotional repetition of the song’s title against a rounded bass line. With many songs built around such short, evocative phrases, assigning meaning to them becomes up to the listener. Forging "People in the City" around the repeated spelling of “people” and “city” seems nonsensical on paper, but against Air’s digital funk backdrop, it becomes a sort of “Inner City Blues” for cyborgs.

Elsewhere, the lush instrumental “Alone in Kyoto” (originally composed for Sofia Coppola’s “Lost in Translation”) allowed Air’s sense of atmosphere to play off Disney Hall’s pristine acoustics as crashing wave samples mingled with moody electronic swells. But it was when the band again opened up the throttle that the evening peaked.

Ending the show with the languid opening track from “Moon Safari,” “La Femme d’Argent,” Air quickened the song's pulse, switching the emphasis from Dunckel’s jazz-dusted keyboard to Godin’s rumbling bass guitar. As the song swelled to a twisting, psychedelic conclusion complete with kaleidoscopic visuals, it was clear that Air wasn’t going to be held in place by its past, no matter how big the spotlight.

-- Chris Barton

Photo: Air, Jean-Benoît Dunckel, right, and Nicolas Godin. Credit: Luciana Val & Franco Musso

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