The weather could have been worse, as a river of mostly white Denverites headed into the snowy foothills and climbed the Red Rocks stairs to see big-name artists distract the fans from the cold. On the stacked bill: Living Legends, De La Soul and Atmosphere.
I admit, I went into this show a cynic. I don't listen to generic rap that often. Before the concert, I had never dug into Atmosphere's large discography to discover Slug's powerful lyrics. And Red Rocks can be a difficult stage for any rapper to command.
The men of De La Soul did the best they could, but you could sense the altitude was getting to them as they paused between their songs. The most standout part of their performance was that the DJ, Maseo, was wearing a T-shirt. Yes, just a T-shirt. On the first of February in the mountains. It wasn't even long-sleeved.
They played hits including "Breakadawn," "Stakes Is High" and "Me, Myself and I," and they didn't need a hype man for any of it; there were enough hype men among the fans, almost too good at their job, as their hollering in the packed GA rows overtook the speakers.
De La Soul is legendary, a pioneer of that ’90s rap sound that still influences the genre today. While the group didn't disappoint, mostly I just wanted to see De La Soul at the height of its career. Perhaps we all have this wish when we witness legends, whether it be Fleetwood Mac or De La Soul; sometimes, the actual performance can't live up to the past.
Before headliner Atmosphere started, the Winter on the Rocks promoters came out and thanked the audience — then asked the audience to thank them. It was bizarre and disruptive.
Finally, Slug came out with DJs Ant and Plain Ole Bill behind him. Slug leaned on some of the Red Rocks attention-grabbing gimmicks, shooting fire off the stage and showcasing optical illusions on the screen — a nod to what many EDM artists bring with so much more flair. The gimmicks worked, though: Denver crowds love their frills.
Atmosphere's set was chopped up with as many breaks as the previous artists' took (a necessity at high altitude), but his banter wasn't as smooth-flowing as his raps. At one point he joked, "Look at how wet you guys make me...I'm pretty sure someone at Red Rocks made me pregnant." That landed awkwardly, with most of the crowd remaining silent amid a few nervous laughs.
Fortunately, he played more old hits than new. The iconic "Sunshine" got the boozy crowd jiving, and the men who were smoking behind me had to take a seat, whether it be from their joint or overwhelming happiness. Slug, fueled by hard-earned energy, did a better job holding the crowd's attention than the previous seven artists (yes, there were eight groups on the bill).
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Slug slowly unraveled my cynicism with his lyrics, because no matter how old his songs are, they're still relevant in today's world, and he had the foresight to see that. He was playing all his bangers from old to new, and while his set lasted two hours, it sped by faster than all the previous ones combined.
Winter on the Rocks is a bizarre concept, given the frigid temperatures in the mountains and how they can affect the artists' performance on the stage.
I'm glad Atmosphere melted away some of my doubts about the night, but I wouldn't trudge through the snow to see this lineup again.
Correction February 6, 2019: An earlier version of this story included incorrect song titles. Those have been removed. We regret the error.