Shaky Knees Music Festival 2019 Review: Atlanta’s Steam Engine Rolls On
Words by: Rob Turner
Shaky Knees Music Festival :: 05.03-05.19
Central Park :: Atlanta, GA
Central Park :: Atlanta, GA
The fact that in 2019 this festival’s heart is still beating is all the proof that you need that the annual Shaky Knees Music Festival is here to stay. The seventh version of the festival was held in Atlanta’s Central Park, snuggled in between Atlanta’s continuously burgeoning Old Fourth Ward and its ever-simmering downtown.
The festival’s stages are named after three of our city’s most well-traveled streets, and one of our country’s greatest record stores (Criminal Records). The larger stages (Peachtree and Piedmont) are completely separated from the other two (Criminal and Ponce de Leon). Each stage alternates acts at each location. While this forces the more adventurous and/or particular music fan to walk a great deal, it also completely removes the too-common festival problem of sound bleed. This is just one of the reasons that Central Park is my favorite Atlanta music festival location.
Another key benefit to this festival is how extremely well-booked it is. They don’t just load up the night acts and hope for people to come early. Shaky Knees has top-notch bands from the second each stage starts. Case in point – had you been able to be at the Piedmont Stage at 12:05 p.m. on Friday, you could have taken in I Don’t Know How They Found Me – a band which includes Dallon Weekes of Panic! At The Disco fame and his Brobecks bandmate, drummer Ryan Seaman. Had you on Saturday found your way to the same stage at the same time, you could have learned why the L.A. act Liily is starting to explode despite the fact that these 19-year-olds have only thus far released an EP. Anyone curious why Vance Powell (Chris Stapleton, White Stripes, Clutch) would want to produce Inspector Cluzo’s new record could have just visited the tree-shaded Criminal Records at noon Sunday – after which you could have casually walked to the Piedmont stage and seen the North Carolina-based Nude Party. According to veteran music writer Hal Horowitz, this group of musicians, “have been honing their approach for six years, (they) lock together and rock out with dry wit, killer hooks and enough energy to power a small city.”
Among those who most appreciate this booking style are the vendors, who keep busy throughout the day, as opposed to only late in each festival day. Perhaps this is part of why every year the Shaky Knees food options get increasingly interesting. The Patty Wagon’s food truck boasts, “burgers so good, it’s criminal.” I thought this was just a slogan until when on my way to Tame Impala I saw a police officer hanging out there. Uh-oh. The Beet Box offered one of the most interesting menus I have seen at a festival in a long time. They had a “Philly beet steak,” a “tempeh BLT” with vegan aioli, a handmade burger with “beetchup” they call the “beet burger” and “elephant juice” with ginger lime elixirs complementing kale, hibiscus and turmeric. Also on the festival grounds were the active Atlanta music community supporters Bho Janic (a top Indian restaurant in one of our country’s strongest cities for Indian food) and Fox Brothers (whose BBQ is so popular that many bands specifically request it in their riders), the latter of which offered a supremely munchable “Frito pie” that over the weekend I saw being feverishly clutched by many a hazy-eyed smiling patron.
I was only able to attend on Saturday and Sunday, but still was able to check out a large chunk of over 15 bands’ sets, and as always with SK, there was not a single dud in the bunch.
My musical weekend began with Henry Stansall and Rupert Stansall, who perform their music (some of which is self-described as “songs for spy movies”) as the Ruen Brothers. They had impressed me even before I learned they had worked with legendary producer Rick Rubin. It turns out that Rubin produced 2018’s All My Shades Of Blue, and that material made up more than half of the trio’s set. The gradually increasing country-bounce of “Walk Like a Man” recalled The Avett Brothers and seemed to greatly benefit from the “two-guitar-let-the drummer-handle-bass” approach. Before performing “Vendetta,” we were told of how the brothers initially fought over the lyrics of the song. They offered a spirited rendition, which served as a musical reminder that, “all’s well which ends well.” This band has decidedly versatile lead vocalists, I even heard one brother briefly echo Elvis … and not ironically … it was sincere and really good. This also rendered me less surprised than I might otherwise have been when they offered a snappy cover of Bobby Darin’s “Dream Lover.” However, the coup de gras of this set was when they had the crowd waving their hands and singing along as the band delivered a truly uplifting version of the title track of the aforementioned Rubin-produced record.
Mark Lanegan Band was next for me, and I was excited not because of the fact that he co-founded Screaming Trees and has worked with a slew of great musicians (and even was a member of Queens of The Stone Age for the majority of this century’s first decade). No, that was all just icing on the Lanegan bio cake. I was more excited because Lanegan’s solo work has by now led me to believe that he is one of the very few rock artists from the ‘90s who can at times recall the work of the iconic Tom Waits. Lanegan fronted a black-clad five-piece band. This seemed less a fashion statement than a “stage canvas” for his keyboard/vocalists impressive tattoos (her musical inputs and singing were even more impressive). It was appropriate on multiple levels that it started raining just as this gravel-throated Seattle musician opened his set with an unfamiliar song about having scars on his knuckles. This was the only rain we would see until nighttime, and it was gone by the time Mark growled out the “wild thing, see the monkey in the jungle swing” lyric which starts “Death’s Head Tattoo” from his 2017 Gargoyle release. The sun even peeked through a hole in the blue sky parted clouds as Lanegan sang about the “deepest shade of blue.” His guitarist offered a brief incisive lead during this song, actually titled “Deepest Shade” and released on 2013’s Imitations. Every single song of the set was engrossing in its own way, and his focused band used subtlety and restraint, which evidenced on no uncertain terms that serving the songs was of paramount importance. During the set, Lanegan barely said much more than a couple of “thank yous,” choosing instead to reach us by vocalizing each song with gradually increasing world-weariness. By the time he achingly sang, “you know how I feel you, in my iron lung” during the stirring “Bleeding Muddy Water,” one could feel every bit of pain of the voice of the song. He completely had me right through the set-closing “Methamphetamine Blues,” which seemed to at once both celebrate the feeling these little helpers can provide, and lament being somewhat crippled by the need to rely on them. He unassumingly bid us a good afternoon and left many of us to discussions about the intensely moving set we had just experienced.
It was during this set that I met Simon Goddard and Elaine Goddard from London. The couple had traveled from their home country to Atlanta because Simon wanted to spend his 60th birthday at Shaky Knees. A devoted Lanegan fan, he pointed out that it was different for him to get to see Mark and his band clearly while they performed. Apparently, when the band performs live they usually do so on a stage so dark that even Bob Dylan and the producers of Game IO Thrones would be in awe.
I then made my first visit to the Ponce de Leon stage to take in Jade Bird, fully unaware of the musical anvil that was about to drop on my head. This English singer/songwriter was clad in a green sort of jumpsuit and full of piss, vinegar and compelling lyrics. Her rich vocals soared over the driving rhythms of her punk-informed rock quartet. The three other musicians brought forth relentless energy swells and musical fire, the flames of which were fanned by Jade Bird’s palpably sincere and animated stage presence. The entire set was strong and focused mainly on her eponymous record that was released just two weeks before this performance. The band hit its SK apex with a trio of mid-set songs, starting with the Ani DiFranco-esque “Lottery,” which has a brilliant chorus about how a (seemingly) should-be-past lover who wouldn’t let go had told her that love is a lottery, “but you got your numbers, and you’re betting on me.” The band at this point had the crowd in its hands, and I felt that they were about to raise this festival’s only roof. While I am generally not one looking for covers, the band did just exactly that to the roof as they tore the living shit out of The Bangles’ “Walk Like An Egyptian” sending powerful waves of energy rippling throughout the area. Not only was this better than the original, it absolutely eclipsed it, something I consider extremely rare in any genre of music. Even better, the “Love Has All Been Done Before” (and its direct lyrics explaining a relationship decision with great candor and wisdom) that followed served to build further on that energy.
Jade Bird – Uh Huh Captured by theschulerchannel
I owe Jade Bird a debt of gratitude, as I felt decades younger than my age while hustling back to the main stages to catch the hipster paydirt that was the Bad Books reunion. On my way, I was treated to a taste of the spirited L.A.-jangle of The Wallows. This band is currently riding high on the strength of their March-released debut record, Nothing Happens. The Wallows have been around since even before their 2017 debut single “Pleaser,” which not only closed their set, but with the jangle exploding into something larger, it ignited a mosh pit frenzy in the entire front section of each side of the Piedmont Stage (the crowd is divided in the center by an area for working staff, photographers and inner-circle guests at each of the larger stages). It was also pretty amusing to hear a band play a song called “Are You Bored Yet” toward the end of their set at a shamelessly genre-defying music festival where not everyone is necessarily a fan of any given act.
Bad Books is a side project of singer/songwriter Kevin Devine and Andy Hull of Atlanta’ Manchester Orchestra. Hull describes the band as, “my therapeutic outfit, a place I can go and do whatever I want in the moment.” This was their first non-SXSW gig in several years and is perhaps why the area in front of their stage was impressively filled in well before their 3:45 p.m. start time. The band was so impressed with how they ended “You Wouldn’t Have To Ask” that they replayed the ending at several different tempos in hilarious fashion, and managed to summarily dismiss the most interesting one. They also brought forth debut renditions of the new-this-week singles “Lake House” and “I Love You I’m Sorry, Please Help Me, Thank You.” The latter of these was delivered in a fashion that the band assured was nothing like the version they recorded for release later this year. This all made me an immediate fan of this band. Just before this song, the band fielded criticism about their backdrop … and then afterward … received praise for it … at 4:20 p.m. exactly … so … well … you know … it actually really wasn’t much of a backdrop at all but the music of the set was fucking awesome. Better to have great music and a mediocre backdrop than the other way around. Just ask Aerosmith or the promoters of Woodstock ’94.
Moving on, the Jim James set was particularly anticipated as his first Atlanta-based solo gig was at the first Shaky Knees and the damn festival was named after the MMJ song “Steam Engine” for which I believe Jim provided the lyrics. I have to admit that while I still very much enjoy Jim live, the fact that he has with his most recent record chosen to increasingly broach MMJ turf is a tad disconcerting to me even though I much enjoy the material the live setting. Why songs like “You Get To Rome” and “Throwback” were not saved for future My Morning Jacket releases makes me wonder if there ever will be any MMJ recordings. Jim was doing a fine job taking his solo material in a new direction, why return to the well in this way? Oh the questions of a thousand dreams … it is his career and he can do with it whatever he wants, and this set was absolutely fantastic. James first allowed his guitarist to shine on the set-opening “Over And Over” before lighting the crowd on fire with a solo of his own. The same side guitarist offered a sweet intro and throughout the song some piercing guitar around which the crowd-pleasing “About To Roam” seemed to be based. James again brought smiles to many of his fans first while passionately singing, and later artfully soloing during “Out Of Time,” and even while under a blazing sun the band brought forth a sterling reading of “A New Life” which found many in the crowd taking their dancing into pirouetting realms, and the band evidenced more comfort to explore here than they would during most of the rest of the set. The set culminated with “Here In Spirit” which conjured for me the great Col. Bruce Hampton whose last performance had been just blocks from this stage, just over two years from this moment. With all due respect, if you aren’t familiar with Hampton, I would like to offer you my deepest sympathies.
Two of the bands with whom I was most familiar would this weekend perform at the side stage named in honor of Criminal Records, a record store which somehow remains iconic despite having employed the notorious Atlanta musical gangster, Cliff Krapp. Criminal Records is also the place at which I bought my first Pedro The Lion and Deerhunter CDs. It would not be fair for me to mention my enthusiasm for Pedro The Lion without including a shout-out to the great radio station who first celebrated them – KEXP – and Cheryl would you please call me already?!? David Bazan is the principal songwriter, and a Phoenix-born musician who joins Eddie Vedder himself in the “greatest Seattle carpetbaggers ever” category as his wizened-laced introspective lyrics were delivered in perpetually unassuming fashion while he simultaneously dropped alluring basslines. Before he and Pedro The Lion delivered a mesmerizing reading of “Powerful Taboo,” Bazan pointed to the trees which were providing the shade (no other stage benefitted from such) and were, as he said, the “subconscious of Earth.” He later embellished further upon this and reminded us to “be aware of the connections.”
The band hit a particularly strong section toward the end of their set with the trio of “Black Canyon,” “My Phoenix” and “Leaving The Valley,” each from deep in their 2019 release Phoenix. The band had in fact been studio-release-dormant for many years before dropping this piece of gold on us. They also touched upon some solo work Bazan released in the meantime with “Bearing Witness” and “Teardrops” and even offered a reading of “Gas And Matches” from Bazan’s Headphones days. Another highlight of the set was a gripping take on “When They Get To Know You They Will Really Run” from 1998’s It’s Hard To Find a Friend.
I then carefully crossed the golf cart lane that separated me from the Ponce stage to see Philadelphia’s Japanese Breakfast, who benefit from their powerful frontwoman, Michelle Zauner. This band’s music is buoyant and quite danceable and frequently reminded me of some of the best ’80s music, specifically The Cure at points. I actually found myself pining for a The Cure tour as I kicked up dirt on my way to see what the hell all of this hype about Fidlar was about. While this represented the only time I was actually glad that my Inside Out wTnS co-host Seth “Your Rocktioneer” Weiner was not in attendance (he surely would have come up with lame comedic attempts about how they should be on a roof, performing songs about people named Tevye, Tzeitel and Golde, it did allow me to witness the pandemonium that this band’s swaggerific music incites. I hope I get a chance to see more of them soon.
And then Interpol, the band I initially found because of my pre-satellite radio era infatuation with college radio. I was for a while blessed with the ability to travel around this country in part to see live music of various forms. One of my favorite things was to check in on college radio in each city, and one of the greatest rewards for doing so was finding bands like Interpol – although I had never seen them live before today. Approaching weather forced them to limit their set to nine songs, but the band poured some serious energy into each. Although they did not exactly evidence confidence in their recent material (their most recent single “The Weekend” was absent and they ignored their 2018 Marauder release except for nailing “If You Really Believe In Nothing”), they did offer “PDA” and “Say Hello To Angels” from their much celebrated 2002 release Turn On The Bright Lights. The threat of electrical storms, the facts that my car was parked a little over a mile away and that my min-pin-terrier mix sweet lil’ girl had now been alone for over eight hours combined to end my Saturday Shaky Knees experience. As I walked I reflected on my prideful feelings about how our hometown festival had multiple times used the screens above the stages not just for the “oh wow” factor during band sets, but also to frequently point the camera on reveling fans and most importantly let all of us know when there were storms in the area.
My Sunday started as every Sunday should, getting down to the perfectly twisted Australian soul-rock band The Murlocs. Their front-man, Ambrose Kenny-Smith, who also handles keyboard duties in the veteran band King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard (who themselves in August will kick off a U.S. tour), called the Shaky Knees crowd a “lovely bunch.” The band is clearly centered on his energetic stage presence, as he accented the music with various rubber-boned moves. He would tuck his arms toward his body in a curved fashion, or crunch his body and move his arms up and down all while he wiggled his body in ways that somehow did, in fact, seem to be locked-in with what the band was doing. He would at times wrap himself in the mic chord and engage the folks in the front with darting, mid-dance-glances. While playing guitar for one song, he kept the harmonica between his teeth so that he could rip it out to just at the right moment to deftly slice some pivotal harp notes into the mix. This band also repeatedly offered nice keyboard and guitar interplay over thumping bass. Some of their music seems like something that would fit as comfortably on Little Steven’s Underground Garage as it might on a progressive soul program. Their set drew heavily from this year’s, Manic Candid Episode release and 2017’s Old Locomotive, but they tapped into 2016’s Young Blindness to end the set with the fitting “Rolling On” (“I come from far and wide, travel in her cross’ great divide. Once it has run the course, I’ll be one step closer to the source. Whether or not, I’ll be rolling on”) before I rolled on to get some food and lose myself in some Grouplove.
Grouplove’s core is five folks, although they performed as an eight-piece today and their positive-energy-despite-it-all-vibe-laced boisterous sound fit in perfectly under the bright blue Georgia sky, which still was kindly offering sporadic cloud shade. The band got playful and encouraged a “Shoe-eee” chant from the crowd in an effort to get their bassist to drink from his boot an audience-provided beer. He did. The crowd laughed and roared. And then the band ripped through the bouncy “Tongue Tied,” which celebrates a treasured friendship and it found one lead singer jumping into the photo pit to touch her fans. Shortly after returning to the main stage, the other singer handled vocals as the band tagged “Tongue Tied” with a piece of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” that inspired mass crowd arm-swaying. They also marched through what they told the crowd would be their final reading of the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” (which also contained a direct reference to Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog”), and before wrapping up their set, worked said crowd into a frenzy with the infectious hit song, “Colours” (which like “Tongue Tied” is from their 2011 release Never Trust A Happy Song).
Grouplove – Sabotage Captured by Moros Erebushttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1va3471hePc
Phosphorescent, whose 2003 debut record was released on Athens, Georgia’s Warm Records label, was next on my dance card. Athens is just a quick ride up Rte. 316 (or state road 78) from Shaky Knees, and it is where just short of two decades ago singer-songwriter Matthew Houck decided to take the stage name, Phosphorescent. He began the set by giving a shout-out to those who the previous night attended the band’s show at the nearby energy box that is Terminal West, declaring it the best show the band had enjoyed in a long time. This happens at Terminal West a lot. He underscored the sincerity of these remarks by opening the set with one the band had not played the night before, “Terror In The Canyons (The Wounded Master),” from the 2013 release, Muchacho. It was during “Los Angeles,” a song that seems an indictment of the insincerity many in the music industry can often reveal with time, that I began to become immensely impressed with the organ inputs coming from stage left. Yet another extremely talented, tattoo-painted keyboardist, she throughout the set snuck extremely smart organ inputs into the sound in a strikingly natural fashion. The band did a trio of songs from last years C’est La Vie – the title of which was presented in giant gold lettering on large black blocks at the front of the stage. The gently rhythmic “New Birth In New England” captivated me with its lyrics and ethereal middle section, and was my highlight of this set.
Phosphorescent – Terror In The Canyons Captured by theschulerchannel
Deerhunter is the band on the festival bill I had seen previously more than any other. It isn’t even close. Normally at a festival such as this, I eschew seeing an artist with whom I am that familiar and who I will surely see many more times, and instead take in someone new. This would have found me at Foals. All due respect to the English rock band, who just released Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost (and later in the year will release part two of the same), I could not keep myself from seeing my treasured Deerhunter. It was my first time seeing Bradford Cox and the gang since they released the melodically alluring and lyrically poignant, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?. Sure enough, early in the set the band tucked three of these new songs in between the haunting, effects-laden title track of their 2007 release Cryptograms and the ever-captivatingly sprawling “Helicopters,” one of the four from 2010’s Halcyon Digest upon which the band would touch. Bradford donned a bass to help deliver the invitingly melodic (dare I say, “poppy?”) backdrop foil to the bemused lyric of “What Happens To People.” Later in the set, we were also treated to the gentle groove-meets-stark lyrics theme of the band’s most recent release with gripping takes on “Futurism” and the rhythmic joyride, “Plains.” Cox often prowled the stage during the set, sometimes playing with pedals (even using some sort of arched metal piece during “Helicopters”), other times moving to the front of the stage to take a good look at the crowd (“we are usually a nocturnal band,” he would proclaim, “so we are operating on half-power right now”) and ultimately even was moved to plunge into the the crowd. “Revival” induced some crazy dancing and many loved Bradford’s tongue-flapped, wordless vocal embellishments. He also took a good bit of time to let his long-time band mate and eternally poker-faced Lockett Pundt shine during, “Desire Lines.” Pundt sang lead and offered some absolutely mesmerizing guitar work, at some points engaging Cox in joint sonic excursions. The band closed the set with one of the first songs Pundt recorded with them, “Agoraphobia,” Bradford seemed to be addressing the trees over the crowd as he repeatedly sang “comfort me/cover me.”
As I made my way to see Tyler Childers, one of the strong, new voices in the still-burgeoning world of contemporary country (old-time feel, strong and current lyrics), it occurred to me that the variety of acts I was seeing on this day was quintessential Shaky Knees. We Atlantans are markedly blessed that this festival takes place where we live, and I hope many from around the world will take a cue from the aforementioned Goddards and make their way here.
Tyler Childers – Feathered Indians Captured by Eric Nelson
Childers opened with “Whitehouse Road” that found seemingly every person at the Ponce de Leon stage area singing along with not just the chorus but with every word. This song (and others), released on his Purgatory record a scant 20 months ago, still seems to enjoy the sort of recognition usually reserved for songs that have been around for many years. Childers’ guitarist would move to the fiddle for the title track, and said fiddle easily meshed with the pedal steel – perhaps best on “Feathered Indian.” Tyler is seriously adored. The riveted crowd exploded when he took a solo of his own on “I Swear (To God)” and were more attentive to his hilarious band introductions than some comedy crowds are to comedians. The reflective “Honky Tonk Song” may have been my favorite song of the set as the band embarked on its most adventurous instrumental sequence, and even briefly seemed to flirt with ensemble improvisation. The fiddle and pedal steel played off of each other, with Tyler dropping occasional riffs into the mix as well as an upbeat strum to begin the jam’s resolve. Should Tyler ever find himself performing at this city’s Sweetwater 420 Festival he may want to consider taking this song on a long ride and perhaps segueing into another one before completing it.
We would be treated to another gift from Australia to bring this eclectic festival to a close. Tame Impala commanded the Peachtree Stage for a dreamy set buttressed by supremely impressive production. Sometimes the presentation was about the laser-augmented stage light show, into which they incorporated the trees that began the separation between the stage and the Piedmont one. Occasionally, they used the single screen behind the band for some video augmentation. However, best of all was the absolutely mesmerizing three-screen animation that was repeatedly presented. Sometimes the band members would ooze in and out of the art, or emerge briefly in a sort of laser-silhouette fashion. It was just as transportable as the was band’s all-encompassing music. They also demonstrated confidence in their new single “Borderline” by dropping it in just before the powerful set-closer “Apocalypse Dreams” from 2012’s Lonerism. They would return to the stage to return to this record for “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards,” and close the 2019 version of Shaky Knees with “New Person, Same Old Mistakes” from 2015’s Currents. This one remained engaging even from afar, as I was able to hear it float over the great city of Atlanta while making my long journey to my car. It was a fitting end to a flurry of outstanding music.