Labor Day successfully taken back by rallying musicians

While riots raged across the river in downtown St. Paul, Harriet Island was the picture of a calm, sunny day filled with fans enjoying music and celebrating a day off of work. In fact, despite the fact that the 94 bus unexpectedly dumped off concertgoers at the capitol and we were forced to wade through the flood of protesters and police occupying downtown, I would have had no knowledge of the riots were it not for my trusty new Blackberry and incessant Twitter updates. Even as hundreds of protesters, spectators and press were being detained and/or arrested at the north end of the Wabasha bridge -- visible from the grounds where the concert was taking place -- most attendees were oblivious to the chaos that ensued just a few hundred feet away.

Labor Day successfully taken back by rallying musicians

The crowd at Take Back Labor Day.

Which was probably for the best, as it allowed us to focus our efforts on the slew of spectacular musical guests at the Take Back Labor Day event, including Billy Bragg, Steve Earle, and hometown heroes Atmosphere.

By the time I found a way around the protest marches downtown and got down to Harriet Island, Billy Bragg was just wrapping up his set -- which was a shame, given that he was one of the performers I was looking forward to the most. Luckily, fans will have two more chances to see Bragg this week, since he is playing the Parkway Theater on Tuesday and Wednesday nights as part of Lizz Winstead's Wake Up World show.

Both Steve Earle and Tom Morello played acoustic sets, but I found Earle to be far more engaging as a performer; Morello seemed more concerned with reminding the audience that he was in Rage Against the Machine (even going so far as to cover RATM's "Guerrilla Radio") than with constructing coherent and thoughtful new songs. Earle brought his wife Allison Moorer out for the second part of his set, and the mixture of their two old country souls was positively breathtaking.

Labor Day successfully taken back by rallying musicians

Slug on the big screen.

As Atmosphere took the stage, it became obvious that they were the main draw for a large portion of the crowd. The audience pushed forward as soon as Slug appeared, dressed in an Obama t-shirt and backed by a live band and backup singer, and many dissipated as soon as he finished rapping. Atmosphere played a nice mix of favorites off their latest album ("Shoulda Known," "Guarantees," and "Yesterday," which he dedicated to George Carlin) before moving into older material like "God Loves Ugly" and "Shrapnel," and judging from the audience's reaction they could have played for a couple more hours without complaint. For today's festivities, however, sets only lasted 30-45 minutes and set breaks were kept to an absolute minimum, keeping things moving at a fast clip all afternoon.

Mos Def was another crowd favorite, and between songs he cracked jokes about Minnesota being too hot for his members only jacket. "Minnesota is an ancient word that means 'hot in the summer,'" he joked. As Mos Def wooed the audience, an impressive array of local hip-hop MCs and musicians gathered at the side of the stage with awestruck looks on their faces, including Muad'Dib and Twinkie Jiggles from Heiruspecs.

The biggest gap between performers happened before headliners Pharcyde took the stage, and the delay in action caused a hefty portion of the crowd to start heading toward the gate. My companions and I toughed it out for a few songs, but after a hot day in direct sunlight and our phones abuzz with word of riots and arrests, it was time to head out and attempt to escape St. Paul unscathed.

[Thank you, K, for the ride home.]

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