Review: Air at the Nob Hill Masonic Center, San Francisco

airsf1   “Every generation moves a little bit closer to freedom.” –Admiral Wallace Falstaff Von Poopipants

Look at all that church over there! We talk about architecture. It’s hard to not be awestruck by the powerful thrusts, spires, Jesuses, concrete of Grace Cathedral. Situated atop an even more powerful Nob Hill: bored through with tunnels, hollowed out for sewage and utility conduits, gently covered with a blanket of gossamer tar and concrete, then heavily sprinkled with people. The Mark Hopkins Hotel is a gargantuan spike pounded in by the urban Paul Bunyans of old, the Fairmont Hotel welcomes guests in glittery pumpkin carriages, the Masonic House looms haunted in elegant mystique, and filling up the south-west corner of this square of wonders—clinging to a hillside so steep the sidewalk features stairs—is a massive white marble tomb, as strange as the restis beautiful: The Nob Hill Masonic Center (at Mason and California Streets in San Francisco). Corpses of Dead Soldiers are carved in bas-relief along the top. I defer now to the Masonic center’s website:

The sculpture [carved into the face of the mega-tomb] is dominated by four huge figures, each 12 feet high, representing branches of our Country’s Armed Forces. Adjoining these, a frieze of 14 smaller marble figures depicts a titanic tug-of-war in the global struggle between the forces of good and evil. Below this portrayal is a dedicatory inscription, “dedicated to Our Masonic Brethren Who Died in the Cause of Freedom.”

I’m just trying to give you a sense of the weirdness of the venue before I talk about Air. I also want you to understand how incorrect of a venue this is for a band like Air. I mean, I’m nearly 30, but I’m not ready for a one-glass-of-merlot evening with the Boston Pops…yet. I mean, this is still Sophia Coppola’s Air, who would play that Friday at Shake-Down-in-the-Desert, Crazy-Daze-Party Coachella (and be 45 minutes late to their 50 minute set, incidentally). Air is sexier than a sit-down-and-be-quiet venue like the Masonic Center. I mean, I’m sexier than this, right? Oh god. This is the Boston Pops.

In the entrance hall, waiting in line for a drink
People are well-dressed, like they have $50 to blow on a weeknight ticket, and I feel the same sense of disillusionment that I felt when I saw The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in 2001 at Bimbo’s where the crowd scratched their chins thoughtfully while Jon Spencer himself looked bored and sober to contrast the raucous, drunken frenzy that I heard on the album and expected from the show. Of course, Air is not a raucous, drunken frenzy on their albums, but they are a bit more cocaine-sprinkled urban-club-chic—albeit downtempo-room—than this.

I consider Freemasonry conspiracy theories as a giant eyeball stares down at me from its cold, white, marble encrusted perch.

After being seated by a very gentlemanly usher
The chairs cradle and lean me back, so my cell phone keeps slipping out of my pocket and then I have to wiggle around and fumble under the chair and touch the person’s foot behind me who is already annoyed that the noisy and tipsy crew happened to be seated in front of them. Come on, people! Stand up! Whoo Hoo, it’s Air! Applause and polite cheers murmur back. One of the two Air guys says, “Thank you very much” through a robotic-voice-making vocoder and the show is off to a rip-roarin’ start.

Let me now interject that I am reviewing an event here and not an album. I have fallen in love with Air again and again, album after album, and I’m still very much in love with them for their minds, hearts, and souls. Seriously. It’s this $50 event that seems a bit lackluster. The biggest problem with the venue is the lack of waitresses inside the concert hall. I, for one, am thirsty and feel like dancing.

Air can be downtempo, but they’re not boring. They are composers. “But they’re also electronic/dance,” says my Windows Media Player. And the Masonic Center is a place for Van Morrison, and bizarre/macabre yet scientific corpse displays, but not sexy, bassy Air. I try to stand up, but there’s not that much room between me and the hard, metal back of the chair in front of me. Furthermore, no one else is standing up around me and I think I may have heard a shush coming from somewhere. It’s a bleak time for all us young dudes. “Is this concrete all around, or is it in my head?” asks David Bowie.

I envisioned Air being a couple of laptop guys with the instrumentation (if not the sound) of IDM. As it turns out, these two innovative, fascinating, brilliant artists remind me of the acoustic-guitar-and-keyboard-harmonizing-duos of bygone days.

They make their first exit after an awkwardly brief set (ostensibly to encourage people to stand up so that this party can get started). And everyone does stand! And there is a grand and momentous rally! Humanity explodes and feet stomp, mouths open, beautiful voices cry out in the din, and I feel even more hopeful when Air returns and starts playing “Sexy Boy” to a thunderous applause. “Boom!” says the bass and for a moment, we’re all dancing. But then, slowly everyone begins to settle back into their little folding chairs and I write down: “This show is such a cock-tease!”

But at the same time, I have a new appreciation for Air. In my mind’s eye, I envisioned them being a couple of laptop guys with the instrumentation (if not the sound) of IDM. As it turns out, these two innovative, fascinating, brilliant artists remind me of the acoustic-guitar-and-keyboard-harmonizing-duos of bygone days. This makes them seem more real, more honest, sweeter and more intimate, more vulnerable and therefore more radiant than can be revealed when these accomplished musicians are blurred behind those silky post-production curtains.

I leave the show desperate for a beer. But wait! We decide to try out the backstage-beer-procuring-power of our photo-pass. I get a bottled frappuccino from a vending machine: sugary and effective but also a testamentto the overall dullness of the evening.

Backstage with Air
Isn’t somebody going to have some cocaine? We’re scrunched on a couch in a little room, sharing the one beer that could be found next to the cheese and fruit tray. Someone says, “When I got this shirt, it just sort of spoke to me, worked with me” as other, equally boring people hover around Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel gibbering predictable questions about gear. Nicolas and Jean-Benoit are enormously polite and charming—pretty much everything I could have hoped for—but they look tired and I conclude that there will be no cocaine afterparty with Air.

At Home After the Show
Air’s unspoken response to the lack of crazy-fun at the show and after party: Well, Chris, we’re Air. If we were having more fun, we wouldn’t be sad, and if we weren’t sad, we wouldn’t be rich.

words: Chris Lindsey
images: Mariana Somma


Darren Ressler