Last weekend, four of my close friends and I attended the Second Annual Shaky Knees Music Festival in Atlanta, GA. My friends had driven 15 hours from Delaware to attend, it was my friend Ben’s birthday, and Modest Mouse and The National were headlining. In other words, expectations were high. Overall the weekend was a blur; a combination of sweat, rain, dirt, beer, interesting strangers, and of course, music. While I could easily write about this weekend in a totally different context (read: “extremely weird”), this is a music blog, so let’s stick to the tunes, for the most part.
I took my first day of work off all year to make all of Friday. With the kids out of site, out of mind, we took to Atlantic Station, where a giant, ugly parking lot awaited us, complete with four stages, eight food trucks, and 350 port-o-potties. After being literally the first people to use the port-o-potty of the day (amazing feeling!), we approached one of my favorite bands from the whole festival, Mutual Benefit.
Mutual Benefit - 12:45
Having seen them a few months back at The Earl in what was a completely revelatory experience, this was certainty a letdown. Simply put, this band is not a festival band. Their soft sound, and airy arrangements belong in the depths of basements, not the wide expanses of a sunny day. Coupled with the fact the sound technician had the sound much too low and the stage next store was loudly sound-checking their drums —- ruining two songs of the already super short set —- it made for a fairly underwhelming 30 minutes. I was lucky enough to talk to frontman Jordan Lee later in the weekend, and after telling him I’ve seen him three times now, he told me I’m his biggest fan outside of NY. Yay!
White Denim - 3:00
While I’ve never become a huge White Denim fan simply due to lack of motivation, I had been tipped off by several friends about their talented live performance. They were right. Each member is incredibly talented on their own, and together they create this weird brand of a Blusey-Souly-Jazzy-Rock and Roll. The songs gracefully blend into one another as the frontman James Petralli makes really funny faces. Overall, it’s a very entertaining spectacle and one that will leave you saying “wow, I suck at guitar.”
Charles Bradley and his Extraordinaires - 4:00 PM
An absolute highlight of Friday, this man is a machine. Originally a James Brown cover artist, a group of talented young Brooklyn musicians approached him and asked if they could be his backing band, which ultimately served as his entrance into the Indie World, despite being as old school an American funk/soul artist as they come. The man rips it live, as he demands energy from the crowd with his sexualized jams. Just look at this photo —- his passion is contagious.
Man Man - 5:00 PM
Man Man is one of my favorite experimental rock groups and one that always entertains, based solely on their unique live approach. Between the constant costume changes, fluorescent decorative tape, aleatoric instrumentation, there’s always something going on. Unfortunately, they relied heavily on their disappointing new record, and the best song came from the hilarious “Loot My Body.” This was also the part of the day that was met with 1) A Downpour of Torrential Rain and 2) A Crazy Drunk Girl who Clinged to My Arm Like a Teddy Bear. Let the weird begin.
Foals - 6:00
Who is this band and why do they talk funny? This performance was very polarizing between my friends. Ben thought they tried to hard to be something they’re not, Wynn thought the set-list was weak, and me…I was too busy dancing my face off to even care. Easily the most fun band to see all weekend thanks to the awesomely wet crowd, Foals (stupid band name) threw down a fury of arena-rock ready tunes, that sometimes sounded like Carly Rae Jepsen and other times sounded like Metallica. Either way, I was enjoying it.
Spoon - 8:00 PM
While I unfortunately didn’t get a great view of Spoon since we wanted to get good spots for the National, the main stages were strategically set up so we hear one band while we waited for another. Spoon are clearly a polished band that know what they’re doing, as every song sounded clear and festival ready. Their setlist crushed too, as they plugged through just about every hit they’ve ever had in just over an hour.
The National - 9:30
Nearing the end of Day 1, we were absolutely exhausted and all wanted to go to sleep early. My friends were still recovering from a 16 hour drive, we were up until 3 AM the night before, and we were soaking wet from the 2 hour constant downpour. But of course we didn’t go home, because the National is the National and that’s why we bought our tickets in the first place. Having seen them a few months ago, I had very high expectations and they were met, for the most part. While I was hoping for more from Alligator, their live sound is one of the most polished you’ll find today. The National, thanks to the brilliant Dessner Bros. have effectively taken their somber sound from the record and turned into a straight-forward Rock and Roll band. Soaring guitars intermingle a-la Radiohead, as frontman Matt Berninger plays the role of a possessed man, banging his microphone on his head, smashing wine bottles, kicking over speakers, and screaming at his band members. It’s all a play, and one that truly adds to the intensity of the performance. The visuals were easily the best of the entire weekend, as the band played in front of a colorful and gorgeous display of reflected mirrors and abstract images. The Weird? As we waited for 3 hours, I had to listen to the life story of an 8th Grader before he continued to stare at me for the duration of the concert. A bit distracting when I’m trying to get my cry on to "Pink Rabbits."
Saturday was chill day. Acknowledging that there were no must-see bands Saturday morning and afternoon, we took advantage and slept in until noon and regained our consciousness. After a birthday brunch, and some accompanying Blood Orange mimosas, we moseyed (I had to google how to spell that word), our way over to Giant Parking Lot around 5:00, just in times for Phox. I don’t remember what this band sounded like, but I do remember she looked like this (see picture below), which was much more appealing that the other band that was playing at the same time, which looks like this:
Portugal. The Man - 6:00
Portugal. The Band (not the Country), used to be a favorite of mine in High School. They represent a lot of different sounds throughout their career, but as any self-respecting douchebag says, I like their old stuff better. Their fan base consisted off mostly 18 year old versions of me, and their band consists mostly of 30 year old versions of 18 year olds. Their music? People say it’s experimental pop now, but it used to be more straight-forward indie rock.
Modest Mouse - 9:30
While I witnessed a few other bands in between, such as Conor Oberst and the Replacements, I was not paying attention enough to offer a serious opinion. It was pouring rain and I’ve never been a dedicated fan of either. I can say that Conor Oberst had a lot of emotional fans, and The Replacements had a lot of Hot Mom fans. So, that was cool. But back to Modest Mouse.
This was the first time I have seen the legendary pioneers of Indie Rock, and was excited to say the least. Throughout the course of the day, I had somehow lost my friends, relocated Crazy Drunk Girl from Man Man, and pushed my way to nearly the front of the holy shit, aggressive fans. The music started and the next 90 mins was a rush.
Modest Mouse started off flawlessly, with a 1-2-3 of “Dark Center of the Universe,” “I Came as a Rat,” and “Paper Thin Walls.” After the first 10 minutes, I was already hailing it the Show of the Weekend. What followed was an onslaught of blockbuster hits, which as someone who had never seen them, did not bother me at all. “Dashboard,” “Bukowski,” “Dramamine,” “Ocean Breathes Salty,” “Float On” “The World At Large” all followed in quick succession before the show finally checked its pace with the mediocre new tune “Sugar Boats.” Set highlight was “Tiny Cities Made of Ashes” as Brock lit up the stage with screeching guitar and screaming vocals that was as fierce as any hardcore band could produce. After the show, we continued to party for Ben’s birthday, because, even with one day left, we knew that after Modest Mouse, the best was already over.
After a decent sleep, we found our way to Giant Parking Lot for Day 3 of Shaky Knees. With a line-up including Alabama Shakes, Edward Sharpe, Iron & Wine, Deer Tick, Trampled by Turtles, and Mason Jennings, it was clear this was the Folksy Day (with the obvious exception of Local Natives and Hold Steady) After two days of pretty intense music, this wasn’t the worst way to close out. Once we arrived, an early highlight proceeded in that of San Fermin.
San Fermin - 1:30
San Fermin is an 8-piece baroque pop band that got its name from the Spanish Running with the Bulls Festival in Pamplona, Spain. I discovered the band as I was teaching a culture lesson to my students, and quickly after realized they would be playing at Shaky Knees. I was intrigued. The band consists of two singers, one male who sounds very similar to Matt Berninger of the National, and a female, whose vocals soar to incredibly heights and sometimes does not pay off. Performance-wise, the band was enticing. Full of brass, keys, and other orchestral flourishes, San Fermin impressed with their grandiose sound, that is mostly beautiful, yet at times a little saccharine. Still, if there is one band I would recommend looking up from the festival, it’s this one.
Deer Tick - 3:00
I might not absolutely love the music of Deer Tick (I called them Deer Dick all weekend), but their live show rules. Led by the hilarious John McCauley in a bright red “LSD” t-shirt and a skirt, Deer Tick was sure to catch the lackluster audience by surprise. Deer Tick’s sound is hard to explain but I’d probably describe it as a rare brand of indie rock/country but without the twang. The Weird? Frontman McCauley is married to Vanessa Carlton. They sang a song together and shared a kiss which was, according to McCaley himself “disgustingly cute.”
Iron & Wine - 4:45
Just before 5, Iron & Whine took the stage, which was undoubtably the worst set of the entire weekend, and possibly my entire life. But hold the phone. This was entirely the sound technician’s fault and not Beam and Co’s fault. For a mostly acoustically fueled band, the only sounds that came through were the bass and drum, which were both set for a dub-step concert. Beam’s guitar and vocals were inaudible and for the entire show fans were screaming “turn it up! turn it up!” but to no response. Things got so ugly that at one point a local radio station came through the guitar amp. Tsk tsk tsk. I left early.
The Hold Steady - 5:45
Another highlight of the whole weekend, The Hold Steady are arguably the greatest Bar Band of All Time. The performance of half classics and half new tunes engaged new fans and old as frontman Craig Finn works the crowd with his weird, yet entertaining stage presence where he alternates between pointing at crowd members, and making flamboyant hand gestures, all while screaming his lyrics like they’re coming out of his head for the first time. With the hardships of traveling and routine performances, I’m always impressed when a band genuinely looks like they’re having a blast. The Hold Steady blew me away in this department, as I’ve never had more fun singing along to the next guy as I did with You Can Make Him Like You
Local Natives - 6:45
In what was a jam-packed afternoon, I rushed back to the other side of The Parking Lot just in time to squeeze to the front railing for Local Natives. A predictably young crowd hoping to scream the refrain of "Airplanes," I knew exactly what I was in for, having just seem them in Atlanta six months ago. With only two albums, the band played through the majority of their new and superior album Hummingbird, as well as the essentials from Gorilla Manor. A unique Johnny Cash cover of “Out Among the Stars” neatly split the set in half and as always, “Sun Hands” closed out the set in style. If you ever get a chance to see Local Natives, please stay until the end, as “Sun Hands,” is one of the most exciting and energetic songs I’ve ever had the privilege to experience live. It’s like “Mr. November,” live, for any National junkies.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes - 7:45
Like most bands at this festival, this was my second time seeing this band, and both times I’ve been very impressed. Despite not ever listening to Edward Sharpe’s music, they have continued to be a highly entertaining live band, thanks to Edward (I’m guessing that’s his name?) infectious personality and improvisation style. Both times I’ve seen them they haven’t had a set-list and instead ask the audience for song suggestions. They’re instrumentally flawless, as they can bend and break to play any sound that they feel like.
Alabama Shakes - 9:15
Alabama Shakes are more enjoyable musically, but less entertaining overall. They are still riding hard off the success of their debut album Boys & Girls from 2012, and had a mostly tired crowd. In fact, half the festival (including us) was gone before the encore. After the first half of the set being hit after hit, the Shakes played eight songs in a row of unknown, presumably new material, that didn’t particularly instill excitement in any of us. That being said, Brittany Howard is still one of the most interesting woman in the music game right now.
After the Shakes, we went home, cleaned the mess we had accrued in my apartment all weekend, and started to dread the week ahead of us. Despite the shaky weather, shaky performances, and shaky times, Shaky Knees proved to be a very sound weekend.