Three weeks after braving a sixth year of the desert of Coachella, I was off across the country to Atlanta, Georgia, to take in the relatively fresh-faced Shaky Knees music festival. Only in its third iteration in as many venues, Shaky Knees has shot up fast in festivalgoers’ estimation: its penchant for widely disparate artists, with a noticeable lack of pandering to wide-eyed EDM fans, convenient location in the heart of Atlanta, and relatively cheap cost for a three-day festival (at $125 for early bird tickets, that’s $175 cheaper than Bonnaroo and a full $250 less than Coachella). DEALZ$$. The fact that my editor harassed the media until they granted my journalistic integrity a pass sealed the deal – another weekend in a mishmash of parks, side avenues, and parking lots to catch set after exhausting set. Hey, at least I now know what the weather at Bonnaroo feels like.
After a debut in a historic Atlanta park and an artistically successful, location-challenged (at an outdoor mall??) second year, Shaky Knees’ move into downtown Atlanta’s Central Park was apparently a welcome one to many fans I talked to, although the location was more a chunk of park (actually two parks, as it connected a bit with Atlanta’s Renaissance Park – Atlanta has a lot of parks) winding its way through a few residential divisions and a massive parking lot for Atlanta’s Civic Center, all tied together by a heavily trafficked, closed-off street. This had pros – the beautiful grass expanse of the Peachtree and Piedmont stages with rolling hills between them and ample room for concessions – and cons, i.e. the vast parking lot where the other three stages (Ponce de Leon, Boulevard, and Buford Hwy) were located and where the sun absolutely punished anyone who wasn’t able to snag one of the coveted stretches of shade around its edges. Luckily, the extensive foliage created a passable illusion that you were in a secluded, sort-of un-urban spot, although I was increasingly envious of whoever lived in the apartments overlooking various spots throughout the festival. And then I discovered that Shaky Knees had instituted a brilliant idea – a media-only entrance with no security checking your bag. Consider me sold!
Aside from location, the extended walks allowed for a more open experience than more closed in urban festivals, and the crowds never really got too outrageous at any one set. This was good both for my ability to nail a good spot at most every set and also my ability not to melt from the unrelenting heat. I moved out of Florida almost eight years ago – suffice to say my body no longer appreciates walking through a sauna just to make my way a few feet. But Atlanta is an ideally decentralized city for a festival, making for some truly interesting growth potential here, and, well, May is better than June. Last but not least, I was blessed enough to meet fellow Sputnik staffers Omaha and AngelofDeath, who combined forces with me for several sets. Some festival recollections:
1. Viet Cong playing to an unsurprisingly crowded tent at the Buford Hwy stage, but something about their brooding post-punk murk didn’t quite translate to the sunny, early afternoon festival environment. Turn down the lights, please.
2. Speaking of bad timing – Surfer Blood opening the festival Friday at 12:30pm! It’s hard not to be a little sad of the band’s descent from Pitchfork hype heroes to the fairly unheralded recent release of their third album (John Paul Pitts transgressions notwithstanding), but they put on a highly energetic set in the blazing midday sun nonetheless.
3. Kaiser Chiefs still pulling down respectable time slots at festivals in America.
4. While I’m only familiar with last year’s Salad Days, knowing the songs wasn’t really the appeal of Mac DeMarco’s Friday afternoon set, but rather appreciating just how ridiculous him and his band are. They know it, too – in my banter power rankings, they came in a comfortable second after Ryan Adams. The easy highlight, though, was Mac’s minutes-long crowd surf out to the far edges of the Ponce de Leon crowd and back to the stage, all while his bandmates jammed. Actually, on second thought, it was probably the hilariously half-assed cover of Coldplay’s “Yellow” that fit too well with the carnival-esque vibe of the set.
5. Having just seen Tennis the week before in Los Angeles, one would think I would have skipped their set Friday afternoon. One would be wrong. After 2014’s stellar Ritual in Repeat and a live set that sold me on Patrick Riley’s subtly affecting guitar work, I will never miss them when they’re around me again. Alaina Moore’s singing loses nothing in translation.
6. Stereotypes be damned: Flogging Molly will chug cans of Guinness in the sizzling sun (a welcome respite from the constant Dos Equis branding sponsorship Shaky Knees signed up for, I guess) and you will like them for it.
7. Up-and-coming singer-songwriter Zella Day following up Tennis to a packed house at the Buford Hwy tent. Not sure whether it was Day’s country-tinged indie pop or the shade provided, but I’m sure she’ll take the new converts any which way.
8. Dr. Dog performing one of the rare cross-genre covers that works to perfection with Architecture in Helsinki’s “Heart in Races,” a song I never thought I’d get to hear live, and quite the bold move to close with it.
9. The conflicts with Ryan Adams and Panda Bear probably didn’t help, but the turnout at Spiritualized’s late afternoon Sunday set was criminal. Whatever; they missed a blissful, symphonic set complete with gospel singers and some twisty, unfurling instrumental passages. Also, I was able to lie down.
10. I’ve never been a huge fan of James Blake’s albums, but after his Friday night set in the Buford Hwy tent, there’s no way I will ever miss him live again. Working with his live band of drummer Ben Assiter and guitarist Rob McAndrews, Blake opened with a couple songs of that angelic voice, bubbling lightly over Assiter’s feather-light drumming and skittering backing tracks, before blowing open the dance floor with a tribal version of “CMYK.” The bass fairly rattled my bones, which was a rarity on the nearly electronics-free Shaky Knees lineup, but the focus remained on that voice, hypnotic, piercing, and impossible to ignore in the mix.
11. While hiring a number of food trucks to provide sustenance made sense in an urban environment and also provided a wealth of artery-clogging, inventive culinary options, the lines that clogged up the thoroughfare through the festival like clockwork at 6:00pm every day was truly horrible. A spreading out of the trucks, along with perhaps more food stations, should be looked into next year.
12. But damn, those food trucks – between the pulled pork mac ‘n cheese and tandoori wings with a side of masala fries, it’s a wonder I made it to the festival on time at all.
13. Metz doing a damn good job of transferring the sizzling, relentless heat into a sonic assault that was up to the tall task of making an already significantly disgusting crowd even sweatier.
14. Mastodon giving it all they had in a hometown set, but the cognitive dissonance of watching them roar into their mics and rip out some truly ruthless solos to what was largely a Southern-fried hipster crowd was a little much to overcome. But I can now say I’ve been to a metal show.
15. American Football or Mastodon? has to be one of the oddest set time either/or choices in festival history.
16. While standing on the wide-open asphalt of the Ponce de Leon stage gave me the approximate feeling of a frying egg, I could only imagine how it was in the mosh pit at Death From Above 1979. Seeing the band now after years of being reunited has kind of gotten old hat, but it’s never not fun to see Jesse Keeler shred his bass like he’s Pete Townshend. Sebastian Grainger’s vocals often get lost in the storm, and his drumming sometimes almost feels like an afterthought, but the energy they bring together is intoxicating. When Grainger poured water all over his drums before slamming them down on the closing freak out, bringing up geysers of water with every vicious snare hit, it almost seemed unnecessary for him to throw his set down the stage when it was all said and done, but what else would you expect?
17. Tame Impala’s rapid rise from indie darlings to festival headliners has been a bit disconcerting considering that the band’s third album hasn’t even dropped yet, but their closing set Sunday night proved the young group has made a remarkable transition to arena-worthy shows. The new songs were politely received; really, in the drug-addled stage much of the crowd was in, it was difficult to distinguish much of a difference. It’s when hits like “Elephant” and “Feels Like We Only Go Backwards” sound not only just as great as they did in years past, but successfully and appropriately titanic, with a cosmic light show to match, that any worries of Tame Impala not being able to fit in the shoes apparently pre-designed for them disappear rather quickly.
18. It’s difficult to be sad that the 2015 tour will be Neutral Milk Hotel’s last “for the foreseeable future,” but then you remember how unlikely it always seemed to ever see them again live, and it’s easy to just appreciate how effortless the band makes it seem now. Jeff Mangum’s solo version of “Two-Headed Boy” was the fan boy cherry on top for the crowd.
19. The Kooks still pulling down respectable time slots at festivals in America.
20. The festival’s last day falling on Mother’s Day provided plenty of material for bands, including Old 97s and the Sheepdogs, but the winner of the day again was Ryan Adams, who’s cover of Danzig’s “Mother” was unexpected, hilarious, and totally kickass.
21. One of my favorite things about festivals is re-discovering bands forgotten over the years. Cincinnati country rockers Heartless Bastards were a favorite of mine in the late ‘00s, but I was totally unaware they were releasing a new album (their first since 2012) until seeing them on the lineup. Their Sunday set was one of the strongest of the weekend, with Erika Wennerstrom’s unique, full-throated voice leading the charge through a host of unreleased tracks. If you haven’t checked them out, get on it – Wennerstrom kicks far too much ass to be ignored.
22. The hot pink guitar wielded by Mitski.
23. Going full bore on the themes from Beat The Champ, the Mountain Goats opened their set Friday afternoon with a speech from what may have been a WrestleMania of yore.
24. As far as time slotting goes, Shaky Knees took a different tack than I’m used to from past festivals. Due to its positioning of two stages close to each other (and I mean practically on top of one another), a series of 2-3 bands would all go on the same time, and then 2-3 more bands would follow at the stages that had been empty at the previous time. This had some pros, by making it fairly easy to schedule who you wanted to see and to plan your route, but it also seemed unnecessarily restrictive and also dissuaded me from splitting time between sets, lest the walk in between stages rob me of some valuable time. I’m not sure how feasible changing this will be in the current environment, but it’s a thought.
25. Although they started dangerously slow – I’ll blame the heat-, Paul Banks and the rest of Interpol eventually locked into a groove with a set heavy in classics and only lightly sprinkled with El Pintor tracks. I wouldn’t have minded some more on that end, but I was in the minority.
26. The sheer injustice of Wilco being relegated to the last set on the Ponce de Leon stage while the Avett Brothers got the coveted two-hour closing set on the main Peachtree stage. The South will not rise again with decisions like that. Still, Wilco powered through a 17-song setlist that was virtually a greatest hits tour – “I Am Trying to Break Your Heart” through “Handshake Drugs” through “Via Chicago” through “Jesus, Etc.” through “Impossible Germany” through “A Shot in the Arm.” Yeah, I was cool going home after that.
27. The naked guy who somehow got all his clothes off (save for shoes and a backwards placed baseball cap) and into the fenced off soundstage path to the Piedmont stage during Spiritualized’s set.
28. I had never seen Manchester Orchestra before their Friday set, and that was clearly a mistake. While playing in their hometown might’ve given the band an extra oomph, I’m not sure they needed it – Andy Hull and company legitimately tore the stage down and sent the crowd into a frenzy. The long form rendition of “My Friend Marcus” into a ferocious “Cope” and the closing “Where Have You Been?” was simultaneously exhausting and life affirming.
29. The best part of the rather sizable stages and inability to get stuck in a crowd for only the biggest of artists was being fifteen feet away from the stage for Frank Turner, who played a predictably, professionally raucous set. Kind of ruined the space advantage, though, with everyone jumping up and down at every verse, forget about the choruses.
30. The Strokes will always remain an acceptable headliner, having been at the gig for so long and knowing just what hits to pull out to push the crowd’s buttons (it helps that they have a deep well to draw from). But perhaps it’s because I’ve seen them do this exact same shtick so many times in the recent past, but Julian Casablancas’ laissez-faire (a less charitable person would say “asshole”) attitude tends to grate whenever he’s not putting his all into the mic. Having said that, his scorching performance of “Welcome To Japan” was a welcome reminder that not all of Comedown Machine was a loss.
Top 5 Sets
1. James Blake
3. Manchester Orchestra
4. Ryan Adams
5. Heartless Bastards