Theatre Royal, London, UK
The four-tiered Theatre Royal, situated in the heart of London's Theatreland, is not given to hosting gigs. Love-across-the-barricades musical Miss Saigon, yes. Gigs, no. But then Air, who once described listening to their debut album 'Moon Safari' as like "looking at yourself in the mirror when you have acne," are hardly a live-to-gig touring machine like, say, the Stereophonics.
"In the beginning we didn't want to play live, it is true," recounts red-headed former architect Nicolas Godin before their first London show, "but then we had to do the promo on Later With Jools Holland. So we played live and realised it was possible."
Possible, but to judge from their pasty demeanour, clearly exhausting. An unpleasant journey from a show in Amsterdam yesterday night, giving the pair barely three hours' rest, has left Air visibly cream-crackered, Nicolas blinking back sleep as he speaks, and one-time maths teacher Jean-Benoit Dunkel disaplying the kind of perky delirium bred by extreme fatigue.
"What has our year been like? Tired," confirms a plainly one-tracked Nicolas, "and sometimes frustrating. In France we are not popular. People don't buy the tickets for the show and don't buy the album, and we are not considered French because our lyrics are English."
How, then, does it feel to have 'Moon Safari' voted album of the year by Select?
"It is strange because music is so subjective, so it's hard to define which album is album of the year," says Nicolas modestly. "My personal favourite is the Beastie Boys album."
"Mine is 'Moon Safari' by Air," grins J-B manically.
A couple of hours later and any burn-out fears are instantly assuaged, albeit after a quite remarkably dull prog-pop set from Sean Lennon. "He is a good composer," defends Nicolas, "he knows a lot of chords that we don't know. I will be watching the left hand during the show to see what he is doing with his guitar."
Little of interest, it transpires, except for offering a "Hi, Mom!" to the left-hand royal box where, indeed, one Yoko Ono is ensconed. She applauds each song wildly, in a manner akin to the parents of Mary and Joseph in the school nativity play, but Yoko is not the only celebrity to attend the Drury Lane show. Oh no.
Directly behind her box - which she vacates after Sean's set, never to return - are seated Neil Tennant and Janet Street-Porter, armed with a family-sized box of Maltesers. Notoriously reclusive Chris Morris is in the stalls, while the right-hand royal box plays host to Beth Orton, Ed Chemical and friends. Which, bearing in mind that the audience is 100 per cent pure Chemical Generation, makes perfect sense.
Perhaps because the Theatre Royal is an all-seater, or perhaps because the sound is impeccable, Air's first London gig is greeted with enough reverence to allow it to become 'a performance.' The starry eyes from the sleeve of 'Kelly Watch The Stars' gaze mournfully towards the upper tier from a pair of surrealist banners, dry ice is pierced by bright green rays of light and Air - augmented by their American backing band, Moog Cookbook - take the stage in all-white outfits, as the motif from Close Encounters Of The Third Kind is picked out on a keyboard.
Nicolas and J-B deliver all their vocals and announcements through arcane voiceboxes, thanks are given via a small recorded "Merci!" manipulated by J-B, and nothing but appreciation and applause comes from the audience. The highlights are predictable to anyone with even the vaguest knowledge of 'Moon Safari' - the three singles, the collaborations with Beth Hirsch - but their arrangements for live performance are a revelation.
'Kelly Watch The Stars,' for instance, starts as a hi-NRG, Sylvester-esque disco track, evolves into a funk homage and finally, with Nicolas attacking his sunburst Jaguar, J-B punching the air and the backdrop flashing with a thousand tiny lights, climaxes as a thrash monster. 'Sexy Boy,' on the other hand, is disguised behind an intro of 'Be Happy,' a new track that sounds like Cybermen singing the organ solo from 'Light My Fire.'
'Be Happy' mutates into the chorus from The Beatles' proto-big beat classic 'Tomorrow Never Knows,' which eventually becomes a retro-electro take on 'Sexy Boy,' complete with body-popping from the Cookbook's bassist-turned-human-beatbox.
Only when Beth Hirsch appears do the songs revert to form. After another unrelated intro, the mood softens and 'You Make It Easy' begins as Beth wafts onstage in an incongrously uncool burgundy dress. Her voice breathtakingly clear, the song is more affecting than ever, with the final refrain of "So watch me fall in love" almost engulfed in the ovation.
The following night at the Shephard's Bush Empire the reaction is almost identical. The smaller venue dictates that Kelly's eyes be hung closer together, adding an oddly comic, cross-eyed element to the auditorium. The sound is comparatively crude, but the audience are as feverish - in voice if not movement. Even with the obstacle of ground floor seating removed, fans seem reluctant to dance, except for a few isolated pockets of mosh during 'Kelly''s finale, but their whooping and heckling ("Inspector Clouseau!" cries one wit after Nicolas's intital greeting) seems like enough of an effort.
As before, there are two encores, yet even with old releases and covers (including a Moog version of Funkadelic's guitar solo-tastic 'Maggot Brain'), the back catalogue is soon exhausted. "We have very much enjoyed being with you this evening," says Nicolas in his impossibly alluring normal voice, "but we don't know any more songs, so... goodnight!"
Afterwards, showing ever deepening signs of weariness, Nicolas and J-B are evidently elated but typically off-hand about the adoration that's still on display in the auditorium.
"Oh," shrugs Nicolas, "it has been just a normal success, you know, not too big, not too little." Mopping his brow, he allows one little concession to the adulation still ringing in his ears. "It's cool," he smiles. As ever from Air, something of an understatement.