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Live Review and Photos: Atmosphere, May 5, 2011, Fox Theater – Pomona, CA

It had been nearly ten years since I first heard Atmosphere, when my neighbor in my Santa Cruz dorms put on “The Woman With The Tattooed Hands” on a car ride. She was a fan of bands like La Tigre and Bikini Kill, so I was a little surprised to hear hip hop in her tiny Honda. I was also not a fan of rap music, but SluG’s lyrics could make fans of any genre pay attention as he delivered a poetic story over synthesized violins. And hell, I was young. Atmosphere, as I would later discover when I got my hands on Overcast and Lucy Ford, was emotional music for young people. Slug wears his heart on his sleeve and raps about easily relatable situations, filled with very real emotions.

Now, as SluG (Sean Daley) and Ant (Anthony Davis) enter their third decade as a recording project, the music is very much the same, and the fans seem to be about the same age I was when I first got into Atmosphere. Like Bright Eyes, who played the same sold-out Fox Theater less than a month earlier, Atmosphere has taken a slow and steady rise to reach these large rooms, enough to have secured an expansive back catalog that is honored in the live shows. But unlike Oberst, SluG has not grown and changed with his audience, but, rather, has meditated on the same themes throughout his career, which is both good and bad. Atmosphere’s live show is undoubtably accomplished and the fans, especially those who were attending for the first time, hung on every word and responded to nearly every call for participation. They, in short, had a great time. But, for the older, long-term fans, it was an unsuccessful nostalgia trip, as the old songs do not pack the same punch they did when we were nineteen. But, then again, what songs do?

But, to just speak about Thursday’s show in terms of an Atmosphere concert would be unfair. This was The Family Tour, a showcase for the Rhymesayers record label, which Atmosphere founded with a couple of friends in 1995. Since then, the label has released records from a number of young rap artists, as well as more well-known names such as Brother Ali and MF Doom. On this night, two notable artists graced the stage before Atmosphere’s lengthy headlining set. Grieves, who performed with his one-man backing band of Budo, impressed with his youthful exuberance. Performing a mix of older cuts and material from his upcoming Together/Apart, Grieves clearly has the act of performance down pat, and the songs to back it up. It is not a stretch to imagine him as a headliner in the near future.

Contrasting this was the intriguing and spastic set from Blueprint. Playing cuts that ranged from dance-floor ragers to angry-rap tirades, Blueprint did not impress the crowd as much as the other acts, but this was more for his unwillingness to not fall neatly into one of the pre-defined genre cliches. But, of all the acts on the bill, Blueprint was the most innovative, even busting out a key-tar for his concluding song. Unfortunately, in the mass-market hip hop audience, which Atmosphere has slowly seeped into, innovation isn’t always met with enthusiasm.

For Atmosphere’s performance, SluG is still best in his routine of not falling into the routine. That is, he is not a prototypical MC in any sense. He is humble, at times awkward, and always sincere, and even years after his arguable creative peak (though it is currently his commercial peak), the rapper doesn’t seem phased by the fame or the lights. When asking the crowd to perform the cliched “throw your hands in the air and wave them like you just don’t care,” he caught himself and exclaimed “no, wave them like you really don’t care,” and proceeded to spazz out with him arms like he was having a seizure. It is this never-ending mission to maintain his underground roots, even as the venues increase in size, that Atmosphere earns their fans. And, rightfully so. Artistic integrity is always under fire and it is hard to call out Atmosphere as being anything but real.

The downside to Atmosphere’s holding steady both lyrically and musically is that at times it feels like we have heard it all from him. Though more recent beloved songs like “To All My Friends” and “Sunshine” were clearly the fans’ favorites (and, rightfully so), others, like “Puppets,” came across as contrived, as SluG asked the fans to raise “scissors up in the air to cut the strings.”

Regardless of what I thought, all of the more recent tunes went over perfectly. In fact, it was Atmosphere’s strongest material that seemed to bore the crowd, including Lucy Ford cuts “Guns & Cigarettes” and “Between The Lines.” It seems like at some point between God Loves Ugly and Seven’s Travels, a generational gap was born. Though the song “GodLovesUgly” has clearly found a second life, “Modern Man’s Hustle” did not generate the kind of sing-along that clearly the group expected, and the Lucy Ford cuts, frankly, fell flat. SluG is more than ten years removed from some of the emotions that caused him to make these emo-raps and it felt like it.

But, this is another generation of fan talking. For the fans who are still in the prime of their youth, this went unnoticed. Atmosphere dealt a heavy load of recent tunes that packed the emotional intensity that has made him famous, and for the fans that were there to hear them, the night can be seen as nothing short of a success. But, for anyone looking for a nostalgia trip, the night served as a reminder that you can’t go back, and when an artist does so night in and night out, it takes its toll. But, you can’t blame the man for trying to please everybody. Luckily, he still pleased most everybody.

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