Atmosphere at Soundset, 5/26/13

Atmosphere at Soundset, 5/26/13
Photo by Erik Hess

Soundset, Canterbury Park
Sunday, May 26, 2013

Soundset has come a long way from its humble origins in the shadow of the Metrodome back in 2008. Skyrocketing ticket sales -- reportedly 28,000 this year -- and a subtle demographic shift over its six-year run have allowed Rhymesayers to grow a block party into a high-budget, destination music festival. Swelling to fill four stages, the festival's organizers have upped their production values on a yearly basis, culminating in Sunday's stylish, but thoroughly professional video-assisted, main-stage show. The two massive screens pumping out to-the-moment live footage of the performers, crowd, and hosts from a multitude of angles stand like monolithic testaments to how far Soundset has come.

Amidst all this change, one comfortingly familiar festival tradition has been Atmosphere's headlining set. In 2013, their performance was just that: a welcome rerun of a great show that most Atmosphere fans have probably seen before.

See Also:
Slideshow: Soundset 2013 - Awesome People and Scenes
Slideshow: Soundset 2013 - The Music
Snoop Dogg at Soundset, 5/26/13
Soundset 2013: A music and photo timeline

South Minneapolis' dynamic duo of Slug and Ant may have painted themselves into a corner by continuing their headlining tradition with such regularity, and the resolute decision to do so has led to some interesting lineups. Atmosphere has been more than happy to take top billing over legends like the Pharcyde, De La Soul and most of Wu-Tang at this point, so their decision to finally step aside and allow Snoop Dogg the final slot seemed surprising. Make no mistake though, Soundset is very much still their show, and if the massive crowd eating up every word didn't convince you of that, then Slug's stage-banter, awash in fatherly pride, sure would.

Atmosphere at Soundset, 5/26/13
Photo by Erik Hess
On display was a thoroughly well-executed example of why Atmosphere is one of our state's native treasures. Slug has a particular mastery of seasonal-affective melancholy that's so characteristic of our local art and its clowning, loveable-underdog flip-side as well. Alternating between the grim, frustrated character of songs like "God Loves Ugly" to a more sardonic jester persona, and the friendly, well-adjusted Sean of recent years, the MC managed to capture the bitersweet nature of Soundset's recent battles against the elements. Vulnerability and pathos don't normally translate well to such a massive setting , but they're integral to the appeal of Atmosphere's music, and their ability to convey that depth of emotion all the way to the back rows by the car show is definitely an impressive feat. 

Still, despite the sea of arms waving like they just didn't care and the choir of delighted young fans singing their hearts out, it was tough to shake the feeling that the headliner was going through the motions. Moving briskly through a set that felt very familiar to the one they performed during the Welcome to MN tour, Slug kept the stage banter to a minimum, and the content pretty PG-13. As was the case with most of the festival's performers, Atmosphere seemed to be keeping a sharp eye on the clock to avoid taking up any of Snoop's expensive time, and a few of the songs felt rushed. Not all the blame can be placed on the setting though. Slug and Ant's show could have really could benefitted from an additional element of showmanship like a live band or hype-person. While he's a fearsome MC, Sean doesn't move like he used to, and occasionally struggled to fill all of that stage-acreage all by himself.

Classic standouts like the always enjoyable "Sunshine" made for a welcome addition to the set list, even if the song's lyrics clanged ironically against the gray, 50 degree weather. "Say Shh" never fails to go bang, and near the end Slug showed a flash of that cocky swagger that made their Welcome to MN show so enjoyable. While the issue of ego and Atmosphere's frontman are well-worn subjects at this point, I actually could have used a bit more of it. This is, after all, their show, and it's a shame that the aging Snoop Lion seemed to have a more dominant presence over the crowd. Once again, it's a tough position to be in -- headlining a festival for six years. You have to compete with the relentless hunger of younger acts straining to take your place and simultaneously bow in deference to the all-star talent that your bookers paid good money for. 
Atmosphere at Soundset, 5/26/13

Atmosphere at Soundset, 5/26/13
Photos by Erik Hess

That's why the standout moment of the show occurred during the final song, in this case "Trying to Find a Balance," when Slug finally let his level of investment in Soundset slip out. As the song's intro portion passed by, the MC changed a few words on the fly: "The last time I felt as sick and contradictive as this/Was when the tornado ate my show last year!" With a wild smile, the Rhymesayer lept into the rest of the song with a renewed energy and confidence could have made for a knockout earlier in the night. That little flash of personality, and its underlying meaning about Atmosphere's continued excitement for their Soundset performance, was incredibly welcome. The crowd gave the love right back too, and "Trying to Find a Balance" became the awesome victory-lap that Atmosphere's whole set should have been.

Critic's Bias: Pretty cold and uncomfortable by this point in the day.

Random Notebook Dump: Slug did a totally badass Pete Townshend windmill-air-guitar impression during the outro of "Balance". Future in stadium rock?

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