Air, the French duo of Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel, released their first EP Premiers Symptômes two decades ago in 1997. In the time since they have become one of the most distinctive bands in electronic music today, producing a series of albums starting with 1998’s Moon Safari which have served to carve out a unique space in the genre where downtempo electronica and vintage pop music meet to create a sound that is all their own. In celebration of the milestone, the band is releasing a compilation, Twentyears, compiling some of their most popular songs along with rarities, previously unreleased tracks, and a disc of the band’s remixes for other artists. Other than a couple of festival dates last year, the band hasn’t played in the US since 2010, but touring for the anniversary has finally brought them back, including a stop this past week at the Strathmore in Bethesda.
Without an album of new music to promote, the duo was free to concentrate on their back catalog, playing a selection of hits and fan favorites from throughout their career. Opening with “Venus” from their third album, 2004’s Talkie Walkie, they played through a mesmerizing set that included now-classic songs like “Cherry Blossom Girl,” “How Does It Make You Feel,” and an instrumental take on “Playground Love” from their soundtrack to the film The Virgin Suicides. Godin alternated between guitar and bass while Dunckel played a massive bank of keyboards that surrounded him (the duo were also backed by an additional keyboardist and a drummer). Though they lacked the guests that so often provide the vocals on their albums, the pair handled lyrics as they came up themselves, often with heavily vocoded vocals. While for many bands such a move might easily turn gimmicky, for Air the electronic-sounding voices fit in perfectly with the futuristic outlook of their music. Mirrored panels behind the band that alternated between showing reflections and showing lights and projections served to enhance the effect.
The band closed with a three-song encore – “Alone in Kyoto” from Talkie Walkie, along with “Sexy Boy” and “La Femme d’Argent” from Moon Safari.