Slugs and ants got me takin’ off my pants.
Earlier this year, I caught wind of a special kind of tour headed to Omaha: Atmosphere (my favorite), Slightly Stoopid (signed by Bradley Nowell himself to Skunk Records back in the day), the talented Grouch and Eligh, and groovy Tribal Seeds.
This announcement got me hot for a number of reasons. For one, because it’s an underground-hip-hop-meets-ska-punk tour. When does that happen? Never, but hip hop and ska belong together, like sex and cigarettes. For another, this was my chance to see Atmosphere perform outside. For me, outdoor shows increase the value of a ticket ten-fold. Fresh air, space and sunshine, beer tents, the ability to ping-pong between your carefully-selected spot on the grassy knoll and being one with the crowd near stage right.
Naturally I couldn’t wait for April to swing around so I could snatch up some tickets and start plotting the Ultimate Weekend Part II (revisit Part I). I grabbed my phone to mark the show date on my calendar, and that’s when a realization slowly crept over me.
The show was the same weekend as my already-booked trip to Niobrara.
If you live in Nebraska and dig the outdoors, chances are you’ve road tripped (almost as far west as the Colorado border) to camp along the Niobrara River. Niobrara involves an 8-hour, all-you-can-drink tube trip down the river surrounded by waterfalls and red cliffs. It’s a long weekend bathing in all of nature’s glory. It’s rejuvenation for the soul.
After months of wallowing in the disappointment that I wouldn’t be able to do both, my cousin suggested I leave Niobrara early and come back in time for the show, which would still give me two nights in the wilderness. I tried to make it work in my mind, but cutting Niobrara short wouldn’t feel right. Plus, I’m not the best traveler. Getting up at 7am to make the 7-hour drive back east and then saving room in my energy tank to rock the fuck out was unlikely. I decided leaving early wouldn’t do either excursion justice.
Long story long, it was my better half who made the impossible possible again, suggesting we travel to catch another leg of the tour. That was an intriguing option that hadn’t crossed my mind. After doing some date checking and flight comparisons, we settled on Salt Lake City, Utah. The venue, the Great Saltair, looked like an ornate palace fit for, well…a sultan. The venue’s website boasted an inside concert hall, a view overlooking the Great Salt Lake, and a newly-added outdoor amphitheater. Mountains, cool outdoor venue…it all added up. We booked our trip that night.
Do Utah? Itah.
Two weeks and one 6:00am flight later, we landed in Utah. It turns out that the state is a little behind on the times. Their laws act like prohibition was recent history. There is no happy hour, all beer must contain under four percent alcohol, and you have to buy liquor from stores run by the state that only sell warm beer (ew) and don’t stock any mixers. Coming from one of the drunkest cities in the country, that was an unexpected quirk.
Otherwise, Salt Lake City is a lovely little place nestled in the mountains. It’s very quiet. Mormons pretty much run the place. A lot of good music travels through there. They have a train for public transportation and some cool dive bars like Cheers to You and The Jackalope. (If you visit the latter and need a cure for your Sunday hangover, ask Sam to make you a Bloody Mary. He uses cilantro and jalapeños from his own garden. Hands-down the best Bloody Mary I’ve ever had. Pour me another.)
I can taste the Saltair.
Getting to the venue was a forty-dollar cab ride from downtown. We befriended the Georgian cabbie and made arrangements to have him pick us up later. When we arrived, we walked down to the rocky beach for a photo shoot with the Great Salt Lake and mountain range in the background. It was a beautiful, overcast day, so we got some good pictures.
It was clear from the setup that the show wasn’t going to be taking place at the outside “amphitheater,” which was disappointing, but everything happens for a reason, and I think I found out what that reason was later on that night.
We went around to the front of the venue to get our tickets at will-call and stand in line with the crowd that was starting to form. It looked like a good mix between Atmosphere and Slightly Stoopid fans. There were kids sporting When Life Gives You Lemons shirts and kids with dreads and hemp necklaces playing hacky sack.
We heard a rumor than anyone 21 and over could swing around to the back of the building and get drinks. That sounded much more appealing than waiting in line, so we ditched our spots to check it out. Sure enough, the venue windows were open and bartenders were serving. We opened a tab and hung around, making small talk with people until the doors opened.
My tactic was, once inside, to head straight to my ideal spot and stay planted there all night. If one of us needed to leave to go to the bathroom or buy a drink, the other would hold down the fort. For me, the perfect spot in a setup like that is on the balcony directly overlooking the stage. I’m too much of a claustrophobic wuss to deal with getting pushed around in a mosh pot just for the chance of getting hit by some of Slug’s flyaway spit. I’m perfectly content being “that guy” standing in the back or looking down from above, bopping my head and grooving, letting the young ones bathe in the flashing neon lights.
I say “young ones” because I kid you not that at twenty-seven years of age, I was one of the oldest people there. That’s cool. I’m glad today’s young people are into music that stretches beyond the Top 40.
Which brings me to a point I need to make that I feel strongly about. One of the coolest things about being at an Atmosphere show (or really any underground show for that matter) has always been being surrounded by fellow fans and sharing that very real connection. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, true Atmosphere fans are lovers and feelers and dreamers. Going to their shows has always been special in that way. It’s always been like that in the past, so I was expecting it this time around, and I just didn’t feel it.
Atmosphere has passed that “niche” stage where the only people who go to their shows are their die-hard fans and people who will inevitably become die-hard fans. So now there’s this whole mix of people who “love Atmosphere” on a very superficial level, and that’s the category most people fit in. For Atmosphere, it’s fucking great. Packed venues. Sold-out shows. All the hard work finally paying off. They can make a living off of music, for God’s sake. Isn’t that every artist’s pipe dream? And Slug has the label and Fifth Element and Soundset on top of it all. I’m happy for them, and I’m rooting for them. They’re still underground, so they won’t sell out their sound, and as a fan that’s all you can ask for. Keep making music. Keep it real. Keep evolving. Keep following your heart.
But there’s this awful, selfish part of me that misses those days at Slowdown when I could hang in the front row and still have a
bubble of personal space around me. I could watch Ant do his thing ten feet away and be close enough to Slug to feel the air change around me when he moved. Those days when I could step out for a quick cigarette break and have a meaningful conversation with anyone on the patio because we were both “in.” We both “understood.”
I’m not saying that you have to know everything about Atmosphere to go to a show or to call yourself a fan. Everyone has to start somewhere. There’s a lot I don’t know and I eat Rhymesayers news every day for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and a bedtime snack. But don’t give me that “Atmosphere is my favorite, I love him” bullshit if you don’t even know that they’re a duo.
And I heard that a lot that night. I’d start talking to someone who “loves Atmosphere” about Ant and what his work means to me and I’d get a bunch of blank fucking stares in return. And I know that Slug is the frontman and Ant is the quiet type who prefers to hang out in the background, but how are you gonna sit there and tell me how much you love peanut butter and not know that it’s made with fucking peanuts? I was utterly disappointed in the fandom at that show, but with fame comes legions of posers and people who just don’t care about music on the same level that you do.
The Grouch and Eligh (and special guest DJ Fresh) kicked off the show with “Say G&E.” The Grouch has a lot of charisma, so he’s really fun to watch perform. His energy is admirable and you can tell that he’s super into being in front of a crowd. Eligh is just mesmerizing to me. His flow is…exciting. Listening to him puts goosebumps on my arms. They lit up the stage and were the perfect openers. They were definitely a highlight of the evening.
When Atmosphere took the stage, shit got crazy fast. My balcony real estate went from “roomy and scenic” to “cramped nightmare.” It was like a scene from The Hunger Games. Herb could read the look of panic on my face and made the heroic move to go find a better spot. As soon as he left, the legions swarmed in and filled the space he left behind. I quickly found myself getting humped by sweaty, drunk people. He came back to me with an alternative, so I squeezed my way out and we made our way to the very back of the venue where we paid twenty bucks a pop to upgrade to a VIP section with booths and waitresses. It was actually a pretty cool view of the awesome light show that was going on (and I wasn’t getting humped).
Slug opened up the show by requesting peace, love, and no fighting. Perhaps he sensed some angst in the hormonal teen crowd before him. From the start, Atmosphere played true to their colors and covered all bases, playing some old shit and some new shit, from the Lucy Ford EPs to Family Sign. A couple of times they’d start playing the intro of one song and cut to another without finishing the first, maybe in an effort to squeeze more songs into their set. I’d rather hear two full songs than half of four, but maybe that’s just the virgo in me…always needing closure. Slug interacted with the crowd. He got our hands in the air. He gave multiple shout-outs to Salt Lake City. He changed up the lyrics a bit whenever it felt right (“She want a baby so I gave her two of those”) He approved of the pot-smoking activities going on in the mosh pit. They played a longer set than I expected and I loved the set list from start to finish.
At one point Slug stopped the show to kick out a couple of guys who got in a fight, which got the crowd cheering wildly. Personally, I felt bad for them not knowing what the situation was. They got booed by the crowd and heckled by someone who very well could have been their idol. I’ve convinced myself that they were likely a couple of drunk idiots who were looking for a fight, that Slug watched it unfold, and these boys deserved what was coming to them.
At some point, Herb left to go to the bathroom and came back with a picture of himself with Ant. He encouraged me to run down to the lower level and go talk to him. As I was accompanied by some liquid courage, I followed his advice and ran down, searching for my favorite pony-tailed producer among the scattered fans in the back of the room. I wasn’t getting very far when someone came up to me and said that there were some people trying to get my attention. I looked up to see Herb and some of the dudes we were standing next to pointing off to the right and yelling “Over there!”
That’s when I saw him taking pictures with a few fans. They left and Ant saw me there, loitering in the background. We made eye contact and he approached me. What I wanted to say was something along the lines of, “Hey Ant, you’re my favorite producer. The music you make speaks to my soul. It’s diverse, but I always know when it’s you. I think everything you touch is melodic fucking gold, from the The Champion EP to A Tribute to Lisa Bonet to everything you do with Slug–from the songs that make me cry to the songs that get me pumped. Thank you.” What came out was something more like, “Hey man, I love you. I kinda made a fool of myself in front of Slug and Brother Ali once so I hope I don’t do that again! HAHA! You’re great.”
Too much liquid courage.
At one point he called me “sweet,” and let me give him multiple hugs. He was awesome, just like I knew he would be. He even let me take a blurry picture of the two of us. Meeting Ant was worth the trip right there, and I don’t think it would have happened at a different venue on this tour, which is why I think we were destined for Utah all along.
All in all, it was a very bittersweet show for me. Atmosphere has outgrown the small but dedicated audience. I’ll always look back fondly on those days. And I’m sure they miss it in some ways too. I’m proud of them for succeeding, and I’ll be at every show that comes my way (and maybe some that don’t). I’ll be the girl standing in the back, bopping my head, reminiscing about my history with the best hip hop duo of all time and anticipating what’s next.