As it warms up in the north, it’s already warm down South, so there are a bunch of early music festivals that come early, and one of the best is Atlanta’s Shaky Knees. Begun just back in 2013, it’s already become a major in the region, even expanding to sister EDM & country fests, Shaky Beats & Shaky Boots. That’s meant that the original can focus on the pop/rock, with a great mix of mainstream & indie, and came to Central Park Friday-Sunday, May 3rd-5th.
Yes, it was hot & sunny to start Shaky Knees, with only one threat of rain on the first day (always a risk at any outdoor festival). Early on, as folks were getting the lay of the land with its four stages – Central Park is rather hilly, with lots of hiking up roots, but also a fair amount of shade – was Curtis Harding on the main Peachtree Stage. He’s a young bluesman, which is very hot these days (see Saturday’s Gary Clark Jr.).
Not used to the heat was North Wales’ The Joy Formidable at the Piedmont Stage, though energetic frontwoman Ritzy Bryan joked that she’s since moved to Utah (of all places), and just isn’t used to sweating. A fan in the crowd cheered for nearby Arizona, with which Bryan mentioned the state’s weird liquor stores (Mormon country is not where you go to get drunk…). Mixing newer songs from last year’s AARTH (QRO review) with their older classics, the more recent material had a harder edge. Yet the band was still their usual exuberant self, bemoaning that they couldn’t stick around for the rest of the festival, but they ‘had’ to go do their tour…
Things have only gotten bigger & bigger for Sharon Van Etten, who’s gone from Brooklyn ‘it girl’ to big name (is even moving to Los Angeles, after starring in the second season of Netflix’s The OA). Her Peachtree Stage set started with a slow burn, as Van Etten eschewed her guitar to just sing, as well as frame herself for the cameras (she’s totally gone L.A…). Her songs from this year’s Remind Me Tomorrow (QRO review) early on had her as more of a dark chanteuse, but she did eventually pick up her guitar for older, more country-gal pieces. And of course she killed it with Remind standout single “Seventeen”.
A killer one-two punch on Day One was Van Etten into Liz Phair at the nearby (if uphill) Piedmont Stage. While music festivals have been making definite strides in increasing female representation, there’s still a ways to go, so it was great to go from Van Etten into one of her icons (as @sharonvanhalen noted on Instagram). Phair was the ‘it girl’ back in the nineties, yet at Shaky Knees she had a strong fan base that was male as well as female, young as well as old – though of course the classics like opener “Supernova” or “Stratford-On-Guy” were the best.
Meanwhile, on the other side of Shaky Knees, under the canopy of the Ponce de Leon Stage, were locals The Black Lips. That roof – and its very welcome shade – made for a more packed-in crowd, and thus a more packed-in energy, essential for the wild band. Okay, maybe the line-up’s changed and they don’t release live chickens on stage anymore (QRO photos doing that at a festival), but they’re still a wild garage-rock band, and the shade also let them wear neon-lit clothing.
Across the street was the smaller Criminal Records Stage, which hosted veteran punks Face To Face. So veteran that all save the singer were seated for their workingman’s punk. On the much bigger Peachtree Stage was Tash Sultana, who was anything but seated, as she played all of her instruments herself.
When emo broke out a few decades ago (was it really that long ago?) one of the originals was Chris Carrabba and his Dashboard Confessional. Yes, maybe he laid it on a bit thick at the Piedmont Stage, including, of course, some solo acoustic pieces, but that is his signature. Yet he also covered The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven” – an amazing song, but Dinosaur Jr. have had the definitive cover for ages – and, for some reason, “Love Yourself” by Justin Bieber…
Even if you’re not into Incubus, you gotta respect Incubus. And a lot of people at the Peachtree Stage were into Incubus. They’ve got impressive musicality and complexity for such a hard-hitting act, more than just ‘hard-hitting’. Singer Brandon Boyd is still ripped (though didn’t take his shirt off this time), reminiscent of the late Chris Cornell. But long ago breakthrough single “Pardon Me” is still their biggest & best, including the best record-scratching DJ work in a rock song.
“We’re Tears For Fears. We’ll be your adult entertainment. Just think of us as your token old people.” While they might be an eighties band, Tears For Fears are one of the great eighties bands, and have been on a definite revival/upswing in recent years, from everyone embracing the kind of synths that they were doing way back when, to Weezer covering their iconic “Everybody Wants To Rule the World” on the Teal Album (QRO review – Tears’ Roland Orzabal joked about it being weird to be in Atlanta without Weezer).
Orzabal and Curtis Smith made the bold choice of starting their set with that best-known song of theirs, which brought people rushing to see them, yet threatened to be, ‘I’ve seen the song I came to see.’ But Tears For Fears are more than just “Everybody”, with other eighties singles such as “Sowing the Seeds of Love”, “Break It Down Again”, and “Memories Fade” (a staple of moving moments on television & film). They even covered Radiohead’s “Creep”, the breakthrough for that band that they & their hardcore fans now say is too commercial, but everybody loved at Shaky Knees. To close out their set, the must-see of Shaky ’19, Tears For Fears returned to “Everybody” record Songs From the Big Chair in its fellow greats “Head Over Heels” and “Shout”, proving that they were a band that deserved to be great, and that you really need to see now.
Headlining the first night of Shaky Knees at the Peachtree Stage was a wonderful pick to headline any festival, the one-and-only Beck [not so wonderful? Him not allowing most photographers…]. He’s been a big artist for decades, yet has done so many different things, from mega-breakthrough single “Loser” to recent Grammy-winning album Colors (QRO review). He’s done intimate, sad folk like “Lost Cause” and giant dance party like “Sexx Laws”.
And he did them all at Shaky Knees. Another artist not afraid to lead with his classics, Beck opened with “Devils Haircut” and “Loser”, to reward all those who had gotten there early to get as close to the front as possible. And if an old song like “The New Pollution” kind of made a newer one like the following “Wow” pale in comparison, so be it. There was an acoustic sexy “Debra” (that included snippets of Kool Keith’s “Lovely Lady” and Prince’s “Raspberry Beret”) and “Lost Cause”, and wild band on “Sexx Laws”. Beck was a force up there, even getting down on his “shaky knees” – and one shouldn’t overlook that impressive backing band, who kept up with everywhere he went.
The weather has become more & more of an issue for outdoor music festivals. No longer does one just worry about it raining, or even storms cancelling a performance. Now there’s a longer lead on worries, and a day’s event can be pushed forward or even pre-cancelled just due to what’s seen coming on the Doppler Radar, as everyone from festival organizers to local authorities play it safer & safer & very safe. Thankfully nothing was cancelled, as the rains came late enough to get in a shortened Day Two at Shaky Knees.
“Okay, we haven’t played a show in seven years,” thus started Bad Books at the Peachtree Stage. The team-up between Kevin Devine and Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull & Benjamin Homola, the time away from their reading material didn’t slow down their laid-back set. Out-of-nowhere awesome was Jade Bird on the Ponce de Leon Stage, the young Brit was excited to be “Hot-Lanta,” because that’s what all her American friends call it. She felt right playing in the south, with a bit of a honky-tonk sound in there.
While Jim James is of course best known as frontman for the highly successful alt-country outfit My Morning Jacket, he’s also forged his own side-solo career, and was nicely rocking at the Piedmont Stage (but you knew that already).
With a name like The Struts, you kind of know what you’re going to see going in, but they were that & more at the Peachtree Stage. Yes, they were strutting around, “Rocking your American asses!” Singer Luke Spiller did make like Mick Jagger, but also introduced the band, and they were all there to have fun, because yes, retro, and yes, fun. There was particularly good interaction with the audience, from hands in the air to, “We don’t have fireworks because we spent it all on my outfit,” so instead had “human fireworks” of the crowd literally getting down (unless very pregnant or would break a leg, “You’re in America and you have to pay for that shit…”), then jumping up. If you don’t remember their songs, you do remember The Struts.
Another act having fun on Day Two was FIDLAR at the Piedmont Stage, but these Los Angeles punks always have fun. Of course they started with a song about alcohol, but didn’t play their classic, “Cheap Beer” (perhaps because no beer is cheap at a festival…). They made a great one-two with The Struts, and yes, there were crowd-surfers.
It was a surprise when Interpol started playing almost a half-hour early at the Peachtree Stage, but that stage & Piedmont had been pushed forward due to storm threat, so that the whole festival would end by 9:30 PM, not 11:00 PM as originally planned. It even seemed like Interpol were playing faster, and playing more of their Lower East Side early-2000s break-out songs to fit into the shorter set, and while they’ve definitely got great newer material (and redeemed themselves for poor major label record Our Love To Admire – QRO review), it’s the old ones that are still the sweetest, especially at a festival [and/or if you’re a New Yorker of a certain age, away from home…].
Also pushed forward on the Piedmont Stage was Gary Clark Jr. Unfortunately, blues don’t lend themselves of speeding up the way that indie-rock or punk does, but guitar man Clark was still holding it down up there. Not pushed forward were The Dandy Warhols on the far Ponce de Leon Stage, but now the alternative veterans were playing against the headliner, and in the rain, lowering their draw (QRO photos from the night before in Atlanta).
Yes, it was raining as bill-toppers Cage the Elephant went on the Peachtree Stage, but if there’s a band to play in the rain and not slow down, it is Cage the Elephant. The group has long impressed at festivals, moving up the bill chain to the point where they’re well deserved headliners at Shaky Knees. Coming to Atlanta after the recent release of Social Cues, they had extra oomph.
“This is the first summer we’ve played festivals, as opposed to volunteering – which is cool, too. But it’s nice to be invited.” So The Nude Party began the final day of Shaky Knees ’19 on the Piedmont Stage. A rockabilly garage party, suitably upbeat for this early in the day, they are so old-timey that they’ve got a song about “The kids these days” (albeit tongue-in-cheek). Also a good fit for early on the last day was the relaxed, light jam of Rayland Baxter at the Peachtree stage.
Unlike a lot of festivals these days, Shaky Knees definitely leans into the indie-rock. Cases in point were Demob Happy at the shady Criminal Records Stage, Slothrust on the pavement of the Ponce de Leon Stage, and Welshly Arms over at the Piedmont Stage. Not Welsh but Southern, very Kings of Leon, which is not a bad thing at all – Southern rock revival, without the negative things about the old Southern rock being revived (i.e., no Confederate flags…).
But Shaky Knees isn’t going to be without electro-pop, like Electric Guest. When not shooting out t-shirts from a t-shirt cannon to the theme song from Game of Thrones on the Peachtree Stage, they were playing upbeat, smooth electro-dance. Similar was the disco-ease of HONNE at the Piedmont Stage, quite pleasing, if also disco-cheese. For a change of that pace was the sweet folk-rock songstress Lucy Dacus at the nice and intimate Criminal Records Stage.
It was no surprise that there was a large, energetic crowd for the energetic Grouplove on the Peachtree Stage, but it was notable that everyone was up not just for old classics like “Itchin’ On a Photograph” but also more recent such as “I’m With You”, and even the brand-new, yet-to-be-released “Deleter” – the band was even doing a video, with singer/keyboardist Hannah Hooper going into the crowd with her GroPro on a stick. She and singer/guitarist/husband Christian Zucconi (QRO interview together) went into the crowd multiple times (note: pretty young girls – and the pretty young boys who love them – love Grouplove).
But special mention needs to be made of bassist Daniel Gleason. Hooper joked that he was looking “dehydrated,” and wanted him to drink a beer out of his shoe – apparently something he’s been doing (or been forced to do) regularly; Hooper noted that he’s the only one in the band who doesn’t get sick, and that the “shoey” should be a new health fad. To “make it grosser,” when they couldn’t find a beer on stage, they took a half-drunk one from a fan. The band segued from their early hit “Tongue Tied” (with Hooper all the way into the pit) into a cover of David Bowie’s classic “Space Oddity”, and covered “Sabotage”, a regular cover of theirs, for the last time. They still ended with breakthrough “Colours”, as always, and it was still great.
Over at the Ponce de Leon Stage, underneath the canopy and above the pavement, was the rising indie-rock of Calpurnia (which, yes, has Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things and It). Across the street was the much more established Deerhunter, playing the small-for-them Criminal Records Stage. That stage might have been the smallest, but it was also the nicest, all shade and crowd close to the stage, with the bar right there, people on the lawn, enjoying the day.
U.K.’s Foals have been criticized by long-time fans for moving away from their original sound – but can you blame them, when they can do big performances like their Shaky Knees one at the main Peachtree Stage? They were definitely into new songs from this year’s Everything Not Saved Will Be Lost Vol. 1 (QRO review), such as “Give It All”. Closing out the Piedmont Stage was Maggie Rogers, so fun and exuberant that there’s really no good reason not to be in love with her.
But no one’s gotten as big as Tame Impala, the Western Australians now at the level where they can headline Coachella – and Shaky Knees. There was a giant, wild crowd, from dudes pushing their way forward to dudes puking their way on the side. Indeed, maybe there was a little more energy because Tame Impala are such a young band, an earlier headliner, no rain, and it was the end of festival. They also had some of the best usage of confetti at a festival ever (aided by lack of wind, but bonus points for doing it as the last act, and not having it litter during the rest of the festival) – one can see why they’ve toured with indie rock spectacle masters The Flaming Lips. Yet it hasn’t all gone to their head, still Aussie humble on such pieces as “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards”.
Putting on a music festival is a tricky business, with promising fests falling all over the place. You’ve got to contend with the weather, permits, neighbors, musicians, crew, security, and the fickle taste of attendees. Yet Shaky Knees has only grown since starting six years ago, establishing itself as one of the go-to events early in the festival season.
words: Ted Chase
photos: Deborah Lowery