Friday, February 24, 2012

Welcome to MN Tour (First Ave, 2/22/12)

The image above is one of the two lackluster iPhone photos I took at last night's Atmosphere/Kill the Vultures/Big Quarters/MaLLy/BK-One show for the second annual Welcome to Minnesota tour. I did it to at least have something to share in this write up, but in all honesty that lineup was way too stacked for me to have been doing anything but enjoying the entire night. I made it to First Ave about 10 minutes before MaLLy's opening set, found an open spot on the floor next to the sound/lighting booth, and didn't leave for the rest of the night. Hit the jump to read my thoughts on the show.

The crowd was still trickling in to First Ave as MaLLy's performance began, but those who caught his short set were in for a treat. For a rapper whose rise to prominence has happened fairly rapidly — it was last May when Slug wore a "Mally & The Sundance Kid" shirt in front of 18,000 fans at Soundset — MaLLy's live act is already top-notch. Often a drawback with technical rappers like MaLLy is that their lyrics get jumbled during live shows, but he sounded crystal clear over the mainroom's sound system, not flubbing a single line. His delivery is confident and unflappable. MaLLy commanded the attention of the crowd at First Ave, and they were responsive. His between-song banter was concise yet effective, and he has great chemistry with DJ Last Word. The new material that the two shared from MaLLy's hotly anticipated The Last Great was excellent ("The Renaissance 2.0," I think, and a humble song dedicated to his late stepfather), and will only build our expectations for its May release. With such an impressive showing, perhaps we'll see him back in the mainroom when it's time for that album release party.

After BK-One kept the crowd moving with a sublime blend of hip-hop and samba, it was time for Big Quarters to take the stage. Slug came out to introduce them as a group who started out years ago by visiting Fifth Element with beat tapes and raps to share during open mics. Years later, here they are opening for Atmosphere in support of their exceptional 2011 album Party Like A Young Commie. While their slow ascendancy to their current position contrasted with a rapper like MaLLy's, Big Quarters were more than ready to burn it down at First Ave. We were treated to a couple songs from 2009's From the Home of Brown Babies & White Mothers ("Barter System" and "Good Look"), but most of the material came from Young Commie. I tweeted during their set that Brandon Allday and Medium Zach seemed to be having a blast during their performance. Zach was giddily bouncing around the stage during every song, while Brandon jumped down into the crowd on multiple occasions. Their positive energy reflected on the crowd, especially during the call-and-response song "Low Highs." Other highlights during the set were "New Plateau," "Perfect Match," "Never Leave a Crumb," and especially "Unreal."

I was somewhat worried that Kill The Vultures' more experimental music could have put on damper on the lighthearted mood lingering after Big Quarters' set. But it seems that the longevity of emcee Crescent Moon and producer Anatomy in the local scene trumped any doubts the increasingly-packed First Ave crowd may have had. The duo brought a very focused and passionate energy to their performance. Crescent Moon began the show by lighting an incense and wafting it over the crowd. Meanwhile, Anatomy sat cross-legged on a table playing his drum machine in an almost meditative trance. They ran through songs that spanned their whole career, which made sense because their most recent album was 2009's Ecce Beast. The crowd particularly seemed to enjoy "14th Street Ritual" and the closer, "Moonshine."

BK-One's last DJ set of the night was locally focused; he spun tracks by Doomtree, Franz Diego, Guante & Big Cats!, The Tribe, Prof, and more. That he did this before Atmosphere, a group whose role in developing the Twin Cities hip-hop scene is undeniable, added to the excitement in the now jam-packed crowd. A full-on Atmosphere concert at First Ave seems to happen about once a year these days, and it always feels like a homecoming. I can think of few shows I've attended where artists receive near-unanimous crowd approval. This is the sort of thing that happens regularly when Atmosphere plays First Ave.

The group took the stage against a wintry backdrop complete with prop birch trees (a nice touch for the "Welcome to Minnesota" tour) and played the moody Family Sign song "Became," an interesting opener. The energy quickly picked up as they followed that up with the always raucous "Shoulda Known," which got the crowd amped up immediately. From there on, Atmosphere played a mix of their standards and older material (which also might be standards at this point). Certain songs took on new life performed live. The rolling synth line of "I Don't Need Brighter Days" sounded thunderous in First Ave. Ant was more lively than I've ever seen him, dancing around the entire show and jumping with the crowd during "Until The Nipples Gone," which has quickly become one of the band's best live songs. However, the zenith of almost every Atmosphere show, whether they play the song first or last, happens during the beat drop of "Trying to Find a Balance." When guitarist Nate Collis started that song towards the end of the night, the crowd reached a fever pitch.

The night could have ended happily right there, but Slug suprised the crowd by bringing out Brother Ali during the encore for "Cats Van Bags," which was an absolute monster live and threatened to break the sound system at First Ave. (BK-One agreed.) Atmosphere closed out the night with crowd favorite "Sunshine" and what I believe was a new song. Overall, it was a fantastic night. It's rare to see such a consistently excellent lineup from the opening act to the headliner. The fact that everyone on the bill is homegrown talent made it even more special. Seeing Atmosphere put on for their home state is a blessing that is easy to take for granted, but doesn't necessarily happen elsewhere. Keeping in mind the increasingly deep pool of local talent makes you hope that the Welcome to Minnesota tour, now in its second year, is a tradition that continues for a long time.

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