Atmosphere The Pageant August 17, 2011
Roughly twenty years into their career, the guys in Atmosphere still exploit the attitude that comes with cornering a niche in modern hip-hop that doesn't depend entirely on being white. Last night's show at The Pageant was not safe for work on any level: The duo's frontman and songwriter spent every moment not whole-bodily pushing R-rated panache addressing the audience in a series of curse words that would make a sailor's cell phone blush. Although the night's attendance was slim -- less than half The Pageant's capacity -- the show reeked of nostalgia and forged persona in a way that surprised even the pit's core fist-pounders.
"It's been a little bit. How you been?" MC Slug introduced the night before unleashing a plan he would return to, with extra profanity, throughout the remainder of the set. "First things first: Let's put a smile on your fucking face."
Even with a generous amount of audience provocation, Slug and producer Ant propelled the show at break-neck speed through a setlist that forced attention to the group's newer material while still touring the emotional hits. The first half hour alone found the group aggressively plunging into nine songs, chiding the audience members near the bar ("Why are you fucking sitting on your ass?"), lecturing a less enthusiastic clapper to the right of the stage ("Even you, buddy. Clap your fucking hands."), waxing vulgar on their last show in St. Louis two years ago and instituting a strict no-crowdsurfing policy: "You look like a fucking idiot, and you have shitty sneakers. Stop crowdsurfing. That said, I love you and want to have sex with you."
While Slug admitted a drinking binge in Cincinnati the previous night almost kept the duo from performing, the show that began with "Until the Nipple's Gone" traveled through heavy hitters such as "Sunshine," "Guns and Cigarettes" and "Puppets" between bouts of newer material. They were backed by a bewildering aesthetic choice: The guys knocked out rhythm and rhyme in front of a faux tree and a background forest scene while Ant danced, headphones tucked into his neck, as though he were invited to a reunion at the Hacienda.
Atmosphere never let the fervor slip, and a crowd that's consistently riled up is unlikely to notice the chinks in the armor. But the frenzy was betrayed by a tired ambience, and the guys have not aged well, likely because of drinking binges in Cincinnati. The duo's dynamic depends heavily upon Slug doing literally all of the front-end work while Ant smoothly breaks things down in the back, and though the additional keyboardist and guitarist increased the dimensions, the stale internal interaction eventually drifted into the night's mildly depressing and overtly emotional undertow.
Perhaps the most difficult feat of the performance, however, was simply the lineup. The Minneapolis duo was introduced by Prof, Blueprint and Evidence, three more humble, more earnest, more sinister rap outfits that tapped into an increasingly spiritual niche in modern rap with fewer antics and less production than the headliners. They stayed sexy where Atmosphere was blunt, alternated hard and soft where Atmosphere fronted violent metaphors and overall remained more relevant than lyrics about weed shops closing and women undressing. But they pushed themselves harder than they pushed the audience, and in a venue packed only in the pit, that matters most.