Review & Photos | Shaky Knees | Atlanta

By Donovan Farley May 15, 2014 1:30 pm PDT

Words by: Donovan Farley
Images by: Ryan Myers

Shaky Knees :: 5.9.14 -5.11.14 :: Atlanta, GA

Last weekend saw the second incarnation of the Shaky Knees Festival in Atlanta, and the debut of its new location at the concrete sprawl of shopping that is Atlantic Station. The move was made after last year’s successful but soaked affair at the Masquerade Music Park to prevent a repeat of 9,000 folks with Indie Rock Trench Foot. While a music festival in the parking lot of an outdoor mall-type area may seem a bit strange, I’d wager everyone was very OK with the arrangements once the sky began to ominously darken, much as they did last year (also, the fest was in a different level than the shops).

Festival curator and founder Tim Sweetwood also changed the lineup a bit this year and truly swung for the fences by nearly doubling the festival’s scope, attendance and lineup from it’s inaugural year, as well as adding a third day. Any initial reservations about the concrete affair were also quickly dissipated once festivalgoers realized how astonishingly easy it was to get from stage to stage. Having to decide between The Hold Steady and Trampled By Turtles becomes a lot easier when you know with certainty that you can catch half of each. The overall ease of navigating the festival was reflected as well in the positioning of the local food carts and the seemingly endless array of full-service bars setup around the festival grounds.

What struck me most about Shaky Knees though was Sweetwood’s refusal to compromise his personal vision for the festival by adding acts just because they move tickets. Shaky Knees is truly Sweetwood’s baby, and he aimed to keep it a guitar-centric event, telling local weekly Creative Loafing that although he is a fan of all music, “I want to do the genres that are true to me in my heart, and I think people get off on that. A big festival where they have anything from Eminem to Pearl Jam, that’s crossing a lot of genres, and I didn’t want to do that”.

As such, there were zero “button pushers” (EDM and the like) on the lineup, unheard of in this day and age. Each day also featured a very similar flow, beginning with ethereal folk and acoustic-type bands and slowly building to the electric, howling rowdiness of bands like The Replacements and Modest Mouse. For example; the gorgeous pastoral folk of Jordan Lee’s Mutual Benefit project proved a perfect way to open the festival, as the songs from his Astral Weeks-recalling debut album Love’s Crushing Diamond beautifully eased the crowd into festival mode.

The first of several difficult “who should we see next” questions arose shortly after with the arrival of Wild Belle and local favorites The Whigs’ sets. Wild Belle’s warm mélange of reggae, soul and jazz sounds about as comfortable and effortless as music can get, which makes them an ideal afternoon band. Because of the ease of traveling from stage to stage, we were able to catch the first of several all out guitar attacks of the weekend in the form of the last half of The Whigs’ set. Hailing from right up the road in Athens, The Whigs played a couple of perfectly-executed cuts off of their just release Modern Creation and brought down the house with their finale “Right Hand On My Heart”.

Up next was high-flying Austin act White Denim, a band whom has crossed the indie/jamband divide better than any other act in today’s musical atmosphere. Watching the band attack their songs live it’s easy to see why, as their blend of jammy psych-rock melds infectiously with James Petralli’s soulful vocals. Petralli and fellow guitarist Austin Jenkins complement each other wonderfully as they melodically wail over the thumping backend Joshua Block (drums) and Steven Terebecki (bass) provide them. Great stuff.

Unfortunately the sound was a bit off for White Denim’s set as the bass was incredibly high in the mix for a good portion of the set. For whatever reason the main stage seemed to encounter similar throughout the weekend, with the crowd even shouting “Turn it up!” during the beginning of Modest Mouse’s set. None of these instances overwhelmingly messed with anyone’s set however, and such is the nature of festivals sometimes (Outkast at Coachella comes to mind).

Mr. Charles Bradley and the Extraordinaires were next and good God y’all, the man can preach! I’ve never see Bradley play anything less than a fantastic set, and this was no different. The performance was old school Soul all the way through: from his hypeman/keyboardist’s intro (“He’s known across the land as a victim of love, the doctor of love, and, to a special few, the Cassanova of love.”) to Bradley’s world-weary vocals, to his non-stop gyrations that eventually popped his belt buckle undone; the show the 65 year old puts on is pure magic. Go see this man as soon as possible.

The heavens had fully opened by this point, and Man Man’s “out there” but heartfelt set seemed suited for such a storm. Foals also kept people’s mind off the rain with a typically high energy set, although by the time they really got going they were done. Spoon set the stage wonderfully for The National by playing a very hot set of which my only “complaint” was not getting to hear any of the new material they’ve been recording and are releasing later this year.

The National’s set closed the day and made a definitive statement about the band’s stature on the current musical landscape. The National played a “headlining set” in every sense of the phrase with Matt Berninger and company performing under an impressive new lighting rig that only accentuated the drama that fills their live sets. As subdued and bummed-out as The National can be on record, they often surprise people with their reckless and wild live shows. Berninger stalks back and forth on stage with his solo cup like a man possessed and one that chooses to exercise his demons while high on red wine and in front of 15,000 people instead of a stuffy Manhattan psychiatrist’s office.

Day two began with a noticeably growing crowd that was definitely “punker” and more heavily tattooed crowd that Friday. The larger audience was treated to nicely overcast skies and suitably enjoyable opening helpings of acoustic-esque tunes from the likes of Wake Owl, Fly Golden Eagle, Hayes Carll, Apache Relay, Packway Handle Band, The Lone Bellow and Lord Huron. When the schedule came out, I questioned having so many similar acts (that most likely share fans) playing at the same time, but as I mentioned above, if your group was sufficiently motivated, it was no trouble to catch 30+ minutes or so of each act, making for a very enjoyable afternoon.

A natural progression from all that pickin’ was the solid set of Laurel Canyon rock delivered from Los Angeles band Dawes, who to me have always sounded like The Eagles…but without the shittiness. It was rather amusing to watch the indie rock fashion show that was the migration of young ladies towards the apparent siren’s song of lead man Taylor Goldsmith’s voice, and I can assure you he could have found a Valentine or 3,000 in the swooning crowd. Afterwards, Conor Oberst played several new songs off his upcoming Upside Down Mountain during his set, and Portugal. The Man burned through a well-attended set before the skies once again brought their wrath down on the now packed festival.

The ensuing torrential downpour did absolutely nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the packed-out crowd that gathered for The Replacements, and the Minnesota punk legends rewarded the huddle masses with a fantastic set. Among the several highlights included a Ramones cover (“Judy Is A Punk”) and a Billie Joe Armstrong appearance ala Coachella. What was dissimilar to that festival was the fact that The Replacements’ set was very well-attended by fans who went apeshit for every second of the band’s set, as opposed to The Replacement’s very sparsely attended set in the desert. Here again, credit goes to Sweetwood for his successful and uncompromising vision of how the festival should play out. As an added bonus, and again because of the festival’s setup, many folks also were able to hear the end Jenny Lewis’ set and her breathtaking classic “Acid Tongue”, which sounds beautiful even with rainwater in your ears.

As the night sky cleared, Issac Brock and Modest Mouse took to the stage for what turned into probably the most enjoyable, “Greatest Hits” type show you’re ever going to catch. Once The Replacements worked the crowd into a rowdy frenzy, Modest Mouse came in and blew the doors off. The band charged through quite a few Good News For People Who Love Bad News songs including “Bukowski,” “Float On,” “Dance Floor” and “Ocean Breathes Salty” as well as the band’s first single from 20 years ago, “Dramamine.”

Day three of Shaky Knees again eased us into the action with an early day helping of very cool singer/songwriter types in the form of newcomer Benjamin Booker (who shared a few of his Dos Equis tallboys into the crowd), San Fermin and Langhorne Slim & The Law. All played solid sets that served fantastic starters to the day while people ingested their first drink of the day/coffee/bowl/whatever and got their bearings back after Saturday night’s electric guitar explosion.

The “easing in” portion of the afternoon was 100%, unequivocally, without-a-doubt over when Deer Tick took the stage with front man John McCauley wearing boots, a frilly white skirt, a belt he may have stolen from my mother’s closet in 1987 and a red shirt that said “LSD” in big orange letters on it. The Providence, RI band played a ramshackle (in the best way) set that included an appearance from McCauley’s wife Vanessa Carlton for a duet of “In Our Time,” the “festival debut” of a song entitled “Shitty Music Festival” (not about Shaky Knees) and several Deer Tick live staples. A very nice festival set, but as McCauley said about their Friday late night show, “We fucked that up. Good show. This will be an abbreviated version of that, you should come see us in a club some time.”

Jason Isbell was his usual spot-on self, playing a set that consisted of songs from last year’s excellent Southeastern as well as a few Drive-By Truckers classics. A definite highlight of the fest came in the form the crowd’s eruption to “Cover Me Up”’s line “I sobered up/And I swore off that stuff/forever this time,” referencing Isbell’s newfound sobriety. Even in the hot ass Atlanta afternoon sun, I got goosebumps.

After Isbell we caught large portions of very nice sets from Iron & Wine, Trampled By Turtles and Local Natives, and again did so without much effort, strolling with cocktails in hand.

Up next was Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, whose live show at this point in their career have basically made them the perfect festival band. Singer Alex Ebert seems as at home on a stage in front of tens of thousands as most people do in their living rooms. Ebert smoked a joint while standing on the guardrail, handed the mic over to fans so they could sing and took someone’s phone to take a selfie…all within the first two songs. Beyond Ebert’s “chilled-out, gregarious hippie cult leader” persona, he is a fantastic lead man, and the Magnetic Zeros are all whip sharp players. The band delivered yet another smile-filled festival set which was only enhanced by the sun setting gloriously behind them.

Closing out the day were Alabama Shakes, and Britney Howard and company summed up enough southern soul power to bring the weary masses to their dancing feet once more. Howard’s passionate pleas brought down the house as the Shakes showed they too are quite ready for festival headlining status, which is good thing, because I’ve gotta believe they’ve got a lot more coming.

All in all, Tim Sweetwood and the entire Shaky Knees team are to be commended for sticking to their guns and what’s true to their tastes. It would appear his steadfastness was rewarded in the form of a very successful festival. As we watched the contented, tired masses file out of the gates and surreally back into Atlantic Station and the department stores it holds, we all had smiles as long as a traffic jam on I-85, and as any ATLien can will tell you: that’s a pretty damn big smile.

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