Shaky Knees 2015: My Beer Is Warm, But It’s Still Cooler Than the Sun
One of the best lineups of the season came together last week in Atlanta.
Shaky Knees Festival
Set in the heart of urban Atlanta, with a view of the city skyline on one side and the deep green shade of park and trees on the other, Shaky Knees found itself a new home in the Old Fourth Ward for its third (and largest) year. The festival’s explosion in size and stature in just a couple of years is a formidable feat, with each successive lineup seeming to build and grow upon the last.
Set across five stages and built into both the Atlanta Civic Center’s parking lot and the beautiful, adjoining Central Park, this year’s Shaky Knees was one of the most composed, organized, and laid-back music festivals in recent memory. Due to the fest’s location in down-to-earth, easygoing Atlanta, there was an appreciated absence of the Coachella eccentrics (although I did meet a very beautiful and very naked lady named Anastasia who fit this bill) and temporary teenage hippies. The crowd was happy, respectful and perpetually drunk amidst the beer vendors that likely outnumbered the on-site porta-potties.
All that said, the most important aspect of a music festival is always the stage and the sound. Shaky Knees outdid itself in this regard. Not a single show was lacking in technical quality—a feat I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure to witness at any festival prior. Not one hiccup! Unless the beer went down the wrong tube…
Despite a less-than-ideal timeslot—early in the afternoon on a Friday when most of the three-day attendees were still either grumbling at work, exchanging their paper tickets for wristbands, or prematurely sun-scorched by the hot Atlanta sun—Nathan Williams gave a standout performance. The majority of the setlist was dedicated to King of the Beach and Afraid of Heights. No complaints here, but a not-so-small part of me did hope for a preview of some of that new Nathan Williams/Dylan Baldi collaboration. Oh well!
Next up was the one, the only Mac DeMarco. Fans flocked from all ends for the man with the perpetual grin as he emerged with a quick wave, sporting a pair of awesome camo suspenders and, shockingly, a hatless head (what happened to the Viceroy cap??). He alternated playing songs from 2 and Salad Days, with a couple always-welcome numbers off early LP Rock and Roll Night Club, and one seriously sloppy, appropriately half-assed rendition of Coldplay’s “Yellow.”
These local Atlantans felt right at home for their set. With their own particular brand of hard, yet conversely soft, intimate rock (mostly due to Andy Hull’s immensely personal lyrics), they got guys and gals alike singing along to their bearded ballads. “Shake It Out”—no, not “Shake It Off”—was easily the fan favorite. And, amusingly, almost as a tribute to their hometown crowd, Manchester Orchestra sounded almost a bit bored during their performance of 2009 breakout hit “I’ve Got Friends.” Guess it’s the teen spirit.
TV on the Radio
With soul and a fantastic stage presence, TV on the Radio put on a show with their well-acknowledged talent and experience. Having seen them a few times before, with each performance, their sound gets cleaner and brighter. They played a handful of tracks off their 2014 LP Seeds, but it was clearly their older hits “Wolf Like Me” and “Golden Age” that got the crowd truly engaged. And, as always, singer Tunde Adebimpe revealed his undeniable swagger with nothing more complex than casual rhythmic arm movements. Such style, such ease.
Although forced to split time between Brand New, James Blake, and Pixies during what was easily—at least for me—the most unnerving conflict of the weekend, James Blake put on the show with the best sound setup of the weekend. Performing in the Buford Highway tent—the only tent stage at the festival—Blake’s heavy, droning bass, intricate loop and deep wobble on instant classics “I Never Learnt to Share,” off his self-titled album, and EP hit “CMYK” pulsated through the dense, transfixed crowd. As a bonus, the live drummer on stage raised the electronic show to the next level.
I was nervous to see the Pixies perform, afraid of how the songs off two of the greatest alternative rock albums of all time—Doolittle and Surfer Rosa—would sound live some twenty-five or so years later. Well, that was a silly thing to be nervous about; Black Francis, he’s still got it. His hushed/yelled vocals on “Wave of Mutilation,” the drop-beat rock of “Mr. Grieves,” and the acoustic fan-favorite performance of “Where Is My Mind?” were beautiful, raw perfection. Unfortunately we also had to sit through songs off their mess of an album from last year, but that’s all right. Sometimes you gotta take the good with the, well, not so good.
What an end to day one. Saving the best of the headliners for first. Julian Casablancas led the inimitable Strokes to expected glory with a spot-on sound and stage presence, demonstrating their deserved position as one of the most iconic bands of the 2000s. They ran through Is This It and First Impressions classics, as well as a handful of newer tracks (including “All the Time” off Comedown Machine, live for the first time ever). Casablancas, with cool-hand charisma and crystal clear vocals, delivered an unforgettable finish to the evening.
Early day two brought Viet Cong and their fierce, vigorous setlist. A relatively new band with only one album, the Canadian four-piece was formed by Matt Flegel and Mike Wallace, both of whom played in Women before its dissolution. The experience from their past playing live showed. With intricate percussive timing and a hypnotic use of sharp guitar repetitions, their show was one of the most engaging of the weekend, and although it inspired little dancing, the audience was enraptured as Flegel drove through the whole of their self-titled debut; final track “Death” was notably raucous for a full rendition of its eleven-minute runtime.
Read our Breaking feature with Viet Cong
With signature, flowing guitars and Martin Courtney’s passive vocals, Real Estate suited Saturday afternoon’s thoroughly welcomed cloud overhang. Much of the crowd chilled through the set, some swaying and some laying on the small hill that bordered the Peachtree Stage. With more than enough hits to play through, Real Estate emphasized their more recent albums, nailing every intricately placed note while retaining their standard: casual, peaceful, calm.
The hottest show of the day had little to do with the heat from the sun. Well, maybe it had a little to do with the sun, but the compressed, jumping, and pushing bodies did much more to drench the young and ferocious mosh-pit in a pool of sweat. FIDLAR played a rowdy hour-long set, covering all their debut album hits, along with a bundle of new tracks, and, wonderfully, “Awkward,” their summer one-off release from two years ago. Oh, and also there was a bonus thrity-second-or-so cover of Harry Nilsson (or Baha Men’s) “Coconut”— quite awkward itself.
Built to Spill
Ramblin’ guitar for days! Built to Spill, one of the few bands to rival Dinosaur Jr. for solo-to-rhythm ratio, played an incredible set for those who chose to chill rather than get rowdy with Flogging Molly. Doug Martsch and band opened with a fantastic and loyal rendition of “Randy Described Eternity,” and followed up the rest of their set with a good mix of new and old, certainly placing an emphasis on songs off this year’s Untethered Moon. But it took no keen eye to see that much of the crowd came for the band’s more established classics.
Neutral Milk Hotel
At 5:45, amidst the late afternoon sun and a welcome cooling breeze, many fans found themselves at a difficult crossroads: Interpol or Neutral Milk Hotel? This conflict caused the most outspoken disdain of the weekend, at least that’s the impression I got from fellow attendees’ grumblings. Regardless, as soon as Neutral Milk Hotel began to play what could potentially be one of their final shows, on their “last tour for the foreseeable future,” the audience hushed and gave due respect to Jeff Mangum’s often peaceful, sometimes harsh, and always intimate performance.
As Jeff Tweedy himself pointed out during some rare banter, Wilco played a relatively short set compared to what they are used to; they were placed in the one-hour-and-fifteen-minute timeslot, second-to-last of the night. And so he kept his stage talk to a minimum, running through a career-wide setlist, including “Impossible Germany,” “Jesus, Etc.,” a rockin’ rendition of “Kamera,” “Red-Eyed and Blue,” “A Shot in the Arm,” and a good dozen more. Of course, Wilco has just about as many beloved classics as they do recorded songs, so it was without surprise that Tweedy, Kotche, Cline, and co. put together a show worthy of their twentieth anniversary tour.
The Avett Brothers
To wrap up the evening, the sun having set and a general coolness and ease pervading the main stage and its surrounding hillsides, The Avett Brothers offered a soothing, often swooning, if not impassioned performance. Southerners themselves, Seth and Scott Avett were more than hospitable with their expansive setlist and lively stage presence. Although for some it was clear a longer setlist from Wilco or Neutral Milk Hotel might have been preferred, The Avetts did a fine job giving the hot and sticky Saturday some solid closure.
Sunday hit its afternoon stride with a bit of Best Coast. It’s important to note that today was easily the hottest day of the weekend—and that’s certainly saying something. While Bethany Cosentino sure had a good group of standing devotees, a lot of folk found themselves seated in the shade under a canopy of hillside trees within earshot, allowing them to lay back and enjoy their Atlanta-local King of Pops popsicles to her sing-along California Nights pop tunes.
Not being too familiar with Dr. Dog’s repertoire, I was surprised when their show ended up being one of my favorites of the weekend. They put together beautiful and sprawling renditions of what turned out to be a catalogue-spanning setlist. Dressed in garb more practical than stylish, they reflected the Southern mentality, and offered an unforgettable performance—even for those listening for the first time (but I think I was one of the few).
Noah Lennox was lucky he got placed in the Buford Tent, which at least offered some shade from the sweltering Sunday sun. The crowd gave itself some space and avoided getting too close for comfort. Rather, diehard fans (and those present because they had never heard of Trombone Shorty) were isolated and entranced by Panda Bear’s appropriately mellow set. Beginning with an uplifting “You Can Count on Me,” the performance flowed from song to song, performing a good chunk of his fantastic 2015 release, Panda Bear Meets the Grim Reaper. Lennox ended the set a few minutes early, but more than made up for that with his uninterrupted transitions—literally not a moment of stage talk. He is known to be a bit shy.
Performing in front of a backdrop of functional old-school arcade games, the iconic Ryan Adams put on one of the most memorable and beloved shows of the weekend. He whipped up a solid set for his relatively short timeslot, which included a number of Ryan Adams & The Cardinals songs (all of which were welcomed with hoots and cheers) and a cover of Danzig’s “Mother”—potentially even better than the original, difficult as that may be—as tribute to the day. And he was quite correct when he said, as his time ran low, “This festival kicks so much ass. I fucking love this place.”
Old Crow Medicine Show
Day three’s exhaustion had more than kicked in come these penultimate old-school country rockers, but Old Crow Medicine Show still got quite a crowd to kick up their boots (yes, cowboy boots—so many cowboy boots). These guys have fifteen years’ experience under the belt, and it showed, with knee-slapping bluegrass stylings and instrumentation: fiddle, slide guitar, harmonica, banjo. It’s not overkill, I swear! No one can resist the “Wagon Wheel.”
It’s no wonder Shaky Knees saved Tame Impala for last. While I anticipated an awesome psychedelic show, I wasn’t sure how a band still so relatively early in their career would hold up as the festival’s closing headliner, but their sound translated incredibly well to the massive sound output provided on the Peachtree Stage. The pulsation of drums, synth, and bass traveled up the hill and beyond. Playing the majority of Lonerism, as well as a fantastic, full eight-minute rendition of brand-new single “Let It Happen,” the perpetual drum fills of “Be Above It” and “Apocalypse Dreams” kept the crowd afloat through the end of the night, giving them one final opportunity to shake their knees and drain the last of their warm beers.