Have you ever attended a music festival in a shopping mall? We just did. After its rainy debut at Atlanta’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it Masquerade Music Park (in conjunction with the Historic Fourth Ward), Shaky Knees Festival moved things over to the concrete sprawl of the city’s outdoor mall, Atlantic Station. It’s a little weird upon first arrival, especially given the faux small town atmosphere (think Mayberry meets the Mall of Americas, only with a Publix), but when you look up at the dark skies and down at the concrete, you begin to realize it’s better than a muddy field. Sort of.
This year marked the second installment of Shaky Knees, and founder Tim Sweetwood went bigger without overstepping his vision, expanding from two days to three. Headliners The National, Modest Mouse, and Alabama Shakes, supported by Spoon, The Replacements, and Violent Femmes, respectively, retained the rugged alt-folk spirit that made last year’s debut so special to Southern audiences. Read: Zero EDM acts were on the lineup. And in a year where Calvin Harris and Skrillex are headlining Austin City Limits, that’s a key factor to note.
The festival anticipated 18,000 attendees, over double what their previous year drew, proving that there’s still a market for more niche festivals opposed to the genre-spanning Big Four and its accompanying junior competition. The weird thing is that because of the location, Shaky Knees had a very sterile feel. Sure, you could see the Atlanta skyline, the parking was plentiful, and the nearby stores provided an agreeable escape during the rain, but… there was something lost in the scenery. Bottom line: A parking lot will always look like a parking lot.
Photo by Josh Terry
That’s a big problem in the South, where the sun can be an unforgivable beast. As Sunday’s bright blue skies proved, the entire area quickly turns into one giant frying pan, capturing the heat until the evening rolls in. There just wasn’t any shelter from the sun all day, and unlike similar shadeless conditions at Coachella in Indio, CA, setting up shop on the asphalt (as opposed to, say, grass or turf) is about as comfortable as switching on the heater in Miami come July.
Having said that, there was plenty to applaud about the setup. The stages were close enough without any irritating bleed-through, the local food trucks were accessible depending on the time, and there wasn’t an aggravating glut of corporate sponsorship, either. Stages were labeled after Atlanta’s iconic streets, and while Dos Equis and Red Bull were obvious benefactors, they were hardly intrusive. In other words, no lackeys were schilling their product or begging you to take free swag.
In fact, the festival even made an amicable effort to pry your eyes off Atlantic Station’s surrounding logos for Old Navy, Dillard’s, BB&T, et al. A hillside Shaky Knees sign became a popular Instagram spot all weekend, large electronic lightning bolts flashed throughout, while a row of trees between the four stages turned magical by nightfall with drizzling white lights. Though, if they really wanted to capitalize on the space, they could have plucked that over-the-top ferris wheel awkwardly installed outside the Waffle House around Centennial Olympic Park.
Photo by Max Blau
Really, Shaky Knees is an experience worth championing, especially if Sweetwood maintains his vision and staves off the temptation to move tickets with the “button-pushers.” The South could use a guaranteed event like this each year, and the overjoyed attendees that sang and screamed and demanded for more all weekend might agree. Here’s hoping it goes the way of Hangout and avoids the pitfalls of expansion that Langerado suffered years back. Our advice for next year? Two words: Tom Petty.
Best Wake-Up Call
Blood Red Shoes
Photo by Michael Roffman
“It’s not too early for whisky, eh?” That was vocalist and drummer Steven Ansell. He’s a Brit, from Brighton actually, and although he’s a tad on the pretty side, he goes well with vocalist and guitarist Laura-Mary Carter, who’s also a Brit, from the same area, and unbelievably attractive. Set against Kentucky’s Sleeper Agent, UK export Blood Red Shoes warmed up the amps over at the Peachtree Stage by turning every yawning festivalgoer’s ears to putty. Think Death From Above 1979 + The Distillers + 1993 rock and you’ll swallow them whole. Their latest record, Fire Like This, was modeled after Nirvana’s In Utero, and it shows: “An Animal”, “The Perfect Mess”, and “Welcome Home” all sound like offspring of “Scentless Apprentice”, “Serve the Servants”, or “Very Ape”. It’s a more refined style of “grunge”, but a squeeze of alternative worth relishing, if only for its sleek, sexy overtones that The Dead Weather seemingly perfected half a decade ago. (Has it really been that long? Shit.) Old cut “I Wish I Was Someone Better” is a solid introduction and even elicited some skanking from a few youngins visibly hungry for whatever they saw on their brother’s VHS copy of Hype!. If only there were more of them; someday, perhaps. –Michael Roffman
Photo by Josh Terry
Philadelphia-based four-piece The Districts graced the tiny Boulevard Stage for a mid-afternoon set. They’re relative newcomers, with only a self-titled EP and a limited run self-released 2012 LP to their name. But where their recorded songs occasionally lack bite, live the band is fiery, with songs that are fully realized, lived-in, and danceable. They’re natural performers. Lead singer Rob Grote’s raw energy made him one of the most memorable frontmen of the entire weekend. The band went through songs like “Long Distance”, “Lyla”, and fan-favorite folksy “Funeral Beds”, which featured a Dylan-esque harmonica and a cathartic finale. However, the highlight came during the closer, “Young Blood”. It’s an as-yet-unreleased track that clocks in around 10 minutes. It recalls Built to Spill, with a spastic guitar freak-out towards the end along with Grote’s gravelly howls. The band got so into it that they managed to knock down a couple mics while flailing around. Considering the blossoming hoards of head-bobbing festivalgoers filing in as they were walking by, The Districts deservedly won many new fans. –Josh Terry
Worthiest Rain Set
Photo by Josh Terry
Considering last year’s muddy fiesta, the weather was on the minds and lips of every attendee all weekend. Yet before the ponchos were snatched away from every store at Atlantic Station, Philadelphia’s experimental outfit Man Man commanded a wild ‘n’ wet set that saw the audience embrace the rain gods and the band, well, treat May 9th like Halloween. Vocalist Honus Honus (Ryan Kattner) went through about five wardrobe changes, though he started with a king’s cape, which was fitting because that’s exactly how he appeared throughout the hour-long jamboree as he jumped to and from his organ. His brethren — Pow Pow (Christopher Powell), Brown Sugar (Adam Schatz), and Shono (Bryan Murphy) — worked through brass, percussion, guitars, bass, everything you could think of as they brought to life much of last year’s underrated On Oni Pond. Oh, they were also all wearing skeleton costumes, sort of like this without the facepaint, and their gear looked like a box of Yikes pencils. “Loot My Body” brought about the best in Honus Honus, but “Piranhas Club” kept everyone warm and bubbly during the hard rain. It made the lack of Rabbit Habits material forgivable. –Michael Roffman
This Charming Band
Photo by Josh Terry
One of Shaky Knees’ many charms is that while it’s growing, it’s still pretty small. With four stages divided into two main areas, it’s incredibly walkable (unless it’s Saturday night right before Modest Mouse), and it’s easy to hear new music and walk up to check out an unknown band. Here’s where PHOX comes in. Though the band has yet to release their self-titled debut album (which they recorded at Justin Vernon’s home studio), the seven-piece still drew a sizable crowd at the Boulevard stage. If they hadn’t broadcasted their Baraboo, Wisconsin, roots, it would’ve been easy to guess with their humble Midwestern charm and earnest brand of ornate folk-pop numbers. Fronted by Monica Martin, who sings like a more soulful St. Vincent, the band previewed songs from their forthcoming debut. They gave off infectious enthusiasm, especially during their single “Slow Motion”, during which the audience joyfully clapped along. On one song, their guitarist sang lead, causing swoons and cheers. As charming and attractive as they are, it’s incredibly easy to root for them. When Martin dedicated the final song, “Espeon”, to her sister and said, “Yes, it’s based off the Pokemon,” it was an adorable and fitting end to the young band’s promising set. –-Josh Terry
Photo by Max Blau
Spoiler: Spoon aren’t playing any new material yet. (We proved that last week.) But hey, no complaints here, at least not when a setlist moves and shakes this good. Starting with Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga‘s “Don’t You Evah” and wrapping up with that album’s closer “Black Like Me”, the hour and 15-minute set (see: full setlist) swept over the fans both casual and die-hard like buddah. (And yes, there were many devotees there. Earlier on, Britt Daniel observed: “You! I saw this guy the last two nights. How ya doin?”) What separates this from any nostalgic act, however, is that we know Daniel can still write a perfect tune — see 2012’s A Thing Called Divine Fits — so in a way, these new Spoon shows are more of a celebration, a way for them to get back in line and find their footing. After all, their last album, 2010’s Transference, wasn’t exactly chicken and waffles for their critics and fans. Still, its strongest tracks are worth clutching, and that’s why few zoned out during “Trouble Comes Running”, “Got Nuffin”, and “Who Makes Your Money”. (Personally I’d take “Written in Reverse” over the latter, but okay.) Even more fascinating was the warm reception of deeper cuts like Girls Can Tell‘s “The Fitted Shirt”. Smiling at the crowd’s energy, Daniel asked, “This is turning out okay, huh?” So far, so good. –Michael Roffman
Photo by Max Blau
Arguably, The National have been festival headliners since their 2010 album, High Violet. While I may love 2007’s Boxer more, they didn’t command a big enough crowd at Lollapalooza the following year. But now, with Trouble Will Find Me and a Saturday Night Live appearance under their belt, the five-piece (with the addition of a backing horn section) are as confident as they’ve ever been. If there was any doubt about their headliner credentials, their mesmerizing light show (which was slightly different from their recent residency at the Chicago Theater) along with their seamless performance chipped away at any lingering skepticism. During the set, frontman Matt Berninger was as sulking as ever, slowly sipping away at a plastic red solo cup as his booming and glooming baritone deftly tackled opener “Don’t Swallow the Cap”, Alligator highlight “Abel”, and Boxer banger “Squalor Victoria”. He would occasionally walk off-stage briskly as if in mid-thought, pacing and mulling over the rest of the song before his cue.
Nearby in our section, an imposing yet endearing fan kept on enthusiastically exclaiming how much he loved the band. He wasn’t their most typical fan, as he’d seem more in place at a college football game than an indie rock show, but the way he kept screaming for “Pink Rabbits” shows how universal their appeal has become. After “This Is the Last Time”, the fan screamed, “Is it just me or was that KICK ASS?” He was right. Though we were separated towards the end of the concert, his unlikely ardor for The National wore off on us. –Josh Terry
Stay for the Aftershow, Appreciate the Festival Set
Photo by Meghan Power
“Who saw us at the Masquerade the other night?” Ian O’Neill asked the hundreds gathered at the colossal Peachtree Stage on Sunday afternoon. Several hands reached for the sky, to which John McCauley added, “We fucked that shit up. Good show. This will be an abbreviated version. You should come see us in a club sometime.” Choice words from the husband of Vanessa Carlton, who appeared beside him half an hour later for their sweet duet of “In Our Time”. While that was an obvious highlight for fans of, well, Carlton, Deer Tick‘s true spirit was conjured Friday night during the wee hours of the morning. Drunk, sweaty, and kinetic, the sold-out crowd at Masquerade’s Hell adored the band’s rowdy knack for mischief, which included a quick french kiss between McCauley and O’Neill, a stuttering cover of “La Bamba”, and one emotional and physical rendition of “Ashamed”. What you don’t get outside with Deer Tick that you do indoors is the stuff that separates them from everyone else: character. All the quirks and tattered traits of their brethren feel condensed and distant in a festival setting, which is something they might agree with as they recently penned a new song titled “Shitty Music Festival”. Don’t worry, it wasn’t about Shaky Knees or “Spicy Milkshake Festival”, according to McCauley on Sunday. What a fucking guy. –Michael Roffman
Charles Bradley and His Extraordinaires
Photo by Josh Terry
At 65, Charles Bradley has the youthful exuberance of someone 40 years younger. Where some of the weekend’s other acts stood stoic onstage gripping their instruments like a crutch, Bradley flailed his arms, gyrated his hips, and belted songs from his albums, Victim of Love and No Time for Dreaming. Many compare Bradley to James Brown (after all, Bradley is a Brown fanatic and paid the bills by being an impersonator), but his expressive and pained voice — like on “This World (Is Going Up in Flames)”, “Dusty Blue”, and “Why Is It So Hard” — has enough personality and soul to be more than just a facsimile. His Extraordinaires, Bradley’s skilled hypemen, breezily performed brassy instrumentals to soundtrack their leader’s dramatic entrance and subsequent wardrobe changes. His keyboardist introduced the singer, saying, “He’s known across the land as a victim of love, the doctor of love, and, to a special few, the Cassanova of love.” Judging by his lively performance, it’s not an inaccurate title. –Josh Terry
The Hold Steady
Photo by Max Blau
I know, I know: We weren’t too big on The Hold Steady‘s latest work, Teeth Dreams. But what trips on record finds its footing live, which should really come as no surprise to any fan in the Unified Scene. The same thing happened to 2010’s Heaven Is Whenever, an album that (admittedly) gets better with each passing performance. Jury’s still out over here on Dreams, but tracks like “Big Cig”, “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You”, and “On With the Business” sure do sound like future sing-alongs for more and more gigs to come. But maybe it was the staging; all weekend, the Ponce de Leon Stage provided a breathy intimacy for mid-tier acts competing with the big guys and gals across the pavement over on Piedmont and Peachtree. Craig Finn could have easily handled those, but he’ll always be better in a tight pocket, where he can pantomime within arm’s reach of his fans. While the stage wasn’t exactly that, it didn’t take long for him to plug in and send his jolts of Midwestern electricity to the Southern crowd. To be fair, anyone can relate to stories of sloppy nights, sordid affairs, and drunken crushes. Thanks to the staging, little got stuck between stations. Hardy har har. –Michael Roffman
Photo by Max Blau
“This song is a country song because I wrote it. I don’t have any idea anymore what country music is but this is a country song because I say it’s a country song,” Jason Isbell explained towards the end of his Sunday afternoon set. After leaving Drive-By Truckers to pursue a solo career in 2007, Isbell has released four albums during this stint and, more impressively, got sober in the process. His latest, Southeastern, is largely about this feat, and while it was blisteringly hot outside, Isbell’s forceful voice brought chills during his mid-afternoon set. Going through album cuts like “Stockholm” and “Traveling Alone” along with DBT tracks a la “Decoration Day” amongst others, Isbell was backed onstage by four musicians but was interestingly without his wife Amanda Shires (who had been a constant tour presence since his recent album came out). In light of her absence, he brought out gospel singer Candi Staton to guest for her song “Heart on a String”. Even though that cameo was a highlight, the best song of the performance was his Southeastern opener, “Cover Me Up”. During the song, when Isbell sings, “I sobered up/ And I swore that stuff/ Forever this time,” the whole place erupted with cheers — positive vibes all around. –Josh Terry