All right, it's official: I gotta lot to learn about covering live music in a mid-sized city. When Slug, the MC for Minneapolis hip-hoppers Atmosphere, paused a few songs in to acknowledge the impressively amped Simon Estes Riverfront Amphitheater crowd-- right between the synth-zapped drug/relationship misery of "Shoulda Known", from last year's When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Shit Gold, and the dub trash talking of "Blame Game", off of 2002's recently reissued God Loves Ugly-- I had a humbling moment. I'd written about the duo, playing live last night as a more rock-style five-piece, at least once before. I knew their long history in the indie hip-hop world had won them their share of fans. But I hadn't expected all this. At first I was thinking the impassioned, arms-waving, rhymesaying crowd was more of a bro-down type of assemblage, based on the dude with the backwards white hat who stepped in front of me to take pictures with a REAL camera and the other dude with the forwards black hat who stumbled next to me to proclaim Atmosphere's set "awesome." But the girl behind me knew all the words, too, from both the albums I've mentioned and probably a lot in between. Atmosphere gets as much hate as love in rap-nerd circles, with that "emo" tag affixed a little bit too permanently to his puckishly not-ugly mug; despite good beats, Slug's obvious lyrical talent, and his development from cathartic chronicler of self to a vivid chronicler of down-and-out working men and women, his records' self-congratulatory old-school leanings (yup, there was a Soulja Boy joke) and predilection for lyrical weightiness over simple play (yup, didactic drugs-are-bad tales, kids) will probably still send me either back to the originals or forward to the next crazy mixtape. But hey, I'm a guy who got bored at a Company Flow reunion-- what the hell do I know? What I do know: Atmosphere put on a deftly entertaining two-plus-hour show last night, doing ninja battle with the mosquitos flocking thickly by the river and keeping his fans-- and those of us who were undecided-- bobbing our heads and listening to his stories. And Des Moines put on a great show, too.
My moment came when Slug asked the crowd what they do when they come up to Minneapolis. "You drive to First Avenue to see a band that's too fucking shitty to come to your city?" After Brooklyn and Chicago, I kind of forget what that means-- and what it means when someone DOES come. Here I've been trying to write about my experiences so far from some kind of omniscient, authoritative voice, when I don't know the slightest thing about what it's like to see a show in Des Moines. Here I've been thinking I was writing about music on this blog, when the most informed perspective I have to offer is as an outsider getting to know a new city. The couple of times I've covered music festivals in the past, those settings and their idiosyncrasies have always become part of the story, and that's how it needs to be here-- in fact, that's really all I'm qualified to speak to, because who cares if I still like Lil Wayne a lot better than Atmosphere if the closest Lil Wayne will probably ever come to my new home city is Saint Paul, and he probably won't play there until too late for many Iowans to get home safely the same night. Slug admitted that he's been "shitty," too, and it may have just been showmanship, but he seemed truly thrilled by the knowledgeable, accommodating reception he was getting-- people willing to shout back something stupid like "asparagus!" just 'cause he told them to. And there I was, proudly wearing my new Fluxblog T-shirt for the first time, presuming I was able to critique an event where a lot of people got to see an act they loved put on a good show in a town that doesn't get its rightful share of shows, because-- what, I've reviewed a lot of indie-pop albums?
"I feel like I'm in somebody's backyard right now," Slug announced as he took the stage, backed by a guitarist, keyboardist, drummer, and backup singer. "Like this is somebody's graduation party or something." The band was best at mostly 1960s-style soulful moodiness with gospel-tinged vocalizations, though a couple of piano-tinged numbers from the new album mixed things up a bit, and God Loves Ugly finale "Shrapnel" closed with a "Kashmir"-size modal-psych freakout. It wasn't long into Atmosphere's set when Slug had everyone shouting back that "God loves ugly"-- self-deprecation, I've always found, comes easier in the Midwest than on the East Coast, where people would sometimes seem concerned that I had a self-esteem problem or something, or else would miss the "deprecation" part entirely (I think the super-competitive culture in New York takes being self-effacing for a sign of weakness). The 2007 Sad Clown Bad Fall #10 EP's "Rooster", with a bluesy guitar lick, came as a reminder that Slug's empathy for blue-collar characters preceded When Life Gives You Lemons..., and its depiction of betrayal recalls Mike Skinner's bleary awareness he's being cheated on in the Streets' 2004 story-album A Grand Don't Come for Free. Over ominous Neil Young-like (ca. On the Beach) guitar chords on the new album's "Guarantees", Slug reminded me of what I imagine to be another less than idyllic quality of mid-sized city life-- "My neighbors ain't doin' much better/ And we makin' competition instead of stickin' together"-- before taunting the audience, "You think you know my stuff?", and giving them a new verse turning Black Eyed Peas and Fergie into a vulgar joke (...turning? *rimshot* Hey, I really like "Boom Boom Pow" AND "I Gotta Feeling"): "I could be your Internet punchline by lunchtime." Slug quoted LL Cool J's "I Need Love" at one point, and I probably enjoyed Atmosphere most when Slug was smoothing out his sing-songy voice to bring a bit of LL's ladies' man composure to jams like the new album's "Yesterday"-- which, despite its warm, almost sensual piano, turns out to be about not a woman at all but the narrator's dad. After a silly mid-encore freestyle including this blog post's title phrase, Atmosphere finally ended a good night by the river with what my notes indicate was the Sad Clown Bad Summer #9 EP's "Sunshine", another song of redemption, this one as easy to understand as the Fresh Prince (even if you're a parent, which, let's face it, a lot of us who heard "Summertime" as kids actually are by now).