Slug wasn’t about to let history upstage him.
The biggest local act that hasn’t left for the coasts, Atmosphere was the no-duh choice to inaugurate our towns’ most anticipated new sports-free music venue since -- ever, maybe? During the first performance at the rehabbed Palace Theatre in 40 years, Slug acknowledged the reopened venue warmly, but he didn’t overemphasize the momentousness of the occasion. After all, the Palace will may well be a big part of Minnesota music soon, but Atmosphere already is.
First came a moody, theatrical opening set from Lady Midnight, followed by vigorous onstage workouts from Rhymesayers up-and-comer Dem Atlas and Doomtree’s Sims, with DJ Shannon Blowtorch spinning between. (Mix of the night: YG’s “F.D.T.” -- aka “Fuck Donald Trump” -- into “I Don’t Fuck With You” -- aka “Shut Up Please, Big Sean” -- the latter easier on the ears when I can imagine the rapper’s petulance directed at our rancid complainer-in-chief instead of poor Naya Rivera.) The stage was bathed in rich red, soft violet and royal blue throughout the night, and there were classy chandeliers high above the performers.
Nobody was expecting Hannibal Buress. (Well, I wasn’t, anyway.) The visiting comic was there to introduce Atmosphere, and he riffed off the oddity of “Twin Cities” as collective urban moniker en route to dubbing St. Paul “the weird religious twin.” Accurately. (Chill, St. Paul. You’ve got a cool new music venue, all those fancy parking meters, and someday a soccer stadium. You can take a little ribbing. Also, you really do have so many Catholics.)
Slug emerged in a parka, hood up, to exclaim “Hold on, there’s far too many people here” with just the right note of deliberately unconvincing feigned surprise. He’s never been ashamed to risk a dad joke that would have launched a crook from the wings to yoink him offstage back when the Palace was a vaudeville theater. But his comic timing was keen, whether responding to the obligatory boos that met a reference to a Wisconsin show with “Their money is just as good as yours” or interrupting a singalong to “The Woman With the Tattooed Hands” (begun movingly a cappella) with a curt “I know the fucking words.” May he never shake his Nixon-baby’s instinct to undercut each earnest confession with a barbed joke -- often seemingly at his own expense but also at yours, his self-deprecation a quintessentially Minnesotan room-leveling technique to tease you for admiring him too much.
Don’t let that just-fucking-around demeanor fool you -- dude’s been a pro onstage for years now, and he can play off the vibe of a room. The particular vibe of this particular room was (like I even have to say it) particularly welcoming, the crowd partly celebrating itself by whooping for its local boy, who knew how long to pause to let them enjoy it. (As crucial a skill as getting a crowd hyped, really.) The career-spanning set included a not-excessive selection of cuts off the latest Atmosphere album, Fishing Blues, and stretched back even past “Scapegoat” from the ‘97 debut LP Overcast to the 1995 track “God’s Bathroom Floor,” which Slug joked was older than some of the people in the room. He’s probably old enough to have fathered most of his fans (as he riffs off in his fittingly groan-worthy Twitter handle), but he’ll always be more like that weird older step-brother from their mom’s former marriage who you turn to for dubious sex advice.
When Slug called for middle fingers to fly on “Fuck You Lucy,” the collective bird-flip felt less like a purge of current romantic turmoil and more like a kind of nostalgic catharsis, like the crowd was recalling how this music had once helped them navigate their gunky teen psychodramas. But though there were glances back at the conflicted surveys of curdled masculinity from Atmosphere’s early days (remember back when we welcomed hip-hop expanding the emotional range of its lyrics because, really, who could have predicted it would lead to Drake?) we also got plenty of Slug as family man. “Yesterday,” a hopeful hallucination about running into his dad, and “Little Man,” for his son Jacob, were bookends of sorts, and Slug threatened to call his wife out onstage to embarrass her with “Happy Mess.” The set also acknowledged death without killing the mood: Slug commanded a sea of cellphone flashlights during “Flicker,” his elegy to his former rhyme partner Eyedea, and dedicated “The Best Day” to Jonathan Moore, the mainstay of the Seattle rap scene who died last week.
Slug’s been around long enough to know you don’t make history -- you just plug away long enough, cater to the kids who love your shit, and one day you wake up as much a local institution as the Spoonbridge and Cherry. The set closed with a nod to hometown fans, “Always Coming Back Home to You,” and a backhanded celebration of Minnesota that concluded, “Now if we could just elect Al Franken as president in 2020, get the Vikings to win the Super Bowl, and bring Prince back.” Those fans got a great show last night, though the show their kids are gonna hear about in twenty years will be even ten times greater. That’s just how history works.
Random notebook dump: So, the Palace. Cavernous yet intimate, with bars tucked away on multiple floors and an enormous balcony that stretches from a relatively close stage view at the railing up a vertiginous incline to seats so dark and distant that staff will surely have to interrupt drunken sex fumblings. The shabby chic décor, accentuated by enough chipped paint and scuffed stone to suggest past glories, is an ideal look for the theater’s gritty 21st century reboot. There were a few traffic jams as people learned to navigate the space, but opening night was relatively smooth. The only noticeable snag: Coat check filled up early, leaving a bunch of us clutching bulky outerwear throughout the night. Also, it’d be cool if earplugs were available for purchase someplace other than the coat check line -- that’s a long wait to avoid tinnitus.
The crowd: Young enough to have been teen Atmosphere fans and loyal enough to rap along to both older deep cuts and last year’s recordings.
Overheard in the crowd: “This would be a good place for Dark Star Orchestra. You could go down to the floor and, like, act out your trip, or head up to the seats and just chill.”
Critic’s bias: The first words Slug ever said to me, after an Atmosphere show at CMJ in 2000, were “I heard you didn’t like my record.” Long story.
God Loves Ugly
Don’t Ever Fucking Question That
Angelface (Multiples 5 vs. Travels 4)
Next to You (feat. Dem Atlas)
Fuck You Lucy
Won’t Look Back
The Woman With the Tattooed Hands
The Best Day
God’s Bathroom Floor
Let Me Know That You Know What You Want Now
Always Coming Back Home to You