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Shaky Knees Music Festival 2016 Review: From Worst to Best

Atlanta’s best music festival keeps the spirit alive in Centennial Olympic Park

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    Shaky Knees Music Festival began as a modest two-day event at Atlanta’s Masquerade (an iconic venue now set for demolition) and has grown into a full-on festival drawing patrons and bands from all over the world. Descending upon Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park, this marks the festival’s fourth location in four years of operation, making it hard to get too bogged down with bummer logistical issues like stage distance and easier to remain hopeful that the bones of the festival —the attention to the lineup from top to bottom, the diverse age groups in attendance, the convenience of the fest to in-town Atlanta — are the aspects of the weekend that are here to stay.

    As big corporations like Goldenvoice and Live Nation (or, in this case, Live Nation subsidiary C3) continue to gobble up independent festivals, it might be time to shake the doom-and-gloom stance on the acquisition of fests and look at the way an event can maintain its identity even with a big company behind the scenes.

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    Photo by Carlo Cavaluzzi

    In this increasingly corporatized festival landscape, Shaky Knees is a hopeful sign that a festival can still have a distinct hometown vibe, and music lovers would be wise to watch fests of this size and situation closely to see where the industry as a whole is headed. Shaky Knees’ distinct identity has a lot to do with founder and longtime Atlanta promoter Tim Sweetwood’s continued role at the helm: You could hear it in the personal thank-yous from artists on the stage, many of whom played this festival in one band or another over the last three years. You saw it in the festival stages themselves, which continued to be named after iconic Atlanta streets rather than big-name sponsors. Most of all, you felt it in the pride taken in the bottom of the bill, where the investment in young talent was made obvious by the fact that up-and-comers like Hop Along and Day Wave played the same stages as headline-rivals Walk the Moon and The 1975.

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    While we can’t help but hope that next year the fest returns to the shady, easy-to-navigate green goodness of last year’s location at Atlanta’s Central Park, Shaky Knees 2016 held plenty of memorable performances. Here are the 35 sets we made it to this weekend, from worst to best.

    –Dacey Orr
    Contributing Writer

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    Crystal Fighters

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    From their culturally confusing outfits to the parrots and vines that dominated their onstage imagery, it would be impossible for the uninitiated to discern not only where Crystal Fighters are from, but even what the hell they are going for with their act. The music doesn’t help, fusing African and Latin rhythms with ass-shaking EDM bass. Yes, the five-piece sells it. Their entire performance was built around selling it by any means possible. It’s music that’s designed for outdoor festivals (or dance collaborations, as their best-known song to date is a pairing with Feed Me), but it fails to hold up to any reasonable questioning about cultural appropriation or basic good taste. Plus, any band that makes a bigger deal about their spiritual home (Basque Country) than their actual home is a straight sell. –Philip Cosores


    Ghost

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    The Eyes Wide Shut of metal offer little more than their costumes and the mystery that surrounds them. Musically, Ghost is a bit of a slog, with the five-piece too obscured by their masks to really connect with the audience. Even frontman Papa Emeritus III (don’t ask), the only specter to don a painted face rather than a full-blown demon head, plays his set stoically and cold, living the role he has created. Yes, this is all intentional, but on Friday evening, in front of a crowd of The 1975 fans that patiently awaited their headliner, it didn’t really work for an audience unaware of the band’s mythology. The doomy mid-tempo tunes failed to endear the band leaving little more than a gimmick and some played-out religious iconography. –Philip Cosores


    Jane’s Addiction

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    Photo by Carlo Cavaluzzi

    Jane’s Addiction will surely collect accolades after Friday’s Shaky Knees set for being so many decades in and still approaching their performances with vigor and excitement, and for good reason: a band that has accomplished so much in their career deserves a certain level of respect. That said, there were multiple puzzling aspects of the performance, not the least of which was Perry Farrell, who felt tired on the high notes and seemed heavily reliant on the shock factor of his backup dancers (which included his wife), who spent the set everywhere from grinding on the aging lead singer to, towards the end, swinging limply from cables.

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    Farrell didn’t seem to be in touch with the crowd at all, playing tough-guy about the “hard curfew” before the set was even near ending and promising concertgoers he would help them find “a happy whore to take home to mama.” The lighting and instrumentals were on-point, but maybe 2016 is not the time to revolve your show around using women as props, and maybe 27 minutes before your set is over is not the time to act tough about running over curfew. The set ended early, presumably expecting an encore, but the crowd filed right out. –Dacey Orr


    Deftones

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    Riding high with a return to form album, Gore, the scene was set on Sunday evening for Deftones to demonstrate why they have transcended the nu-metal white pony they rode in on in the ’90s. And if it were just based on energy, with frontman Chino Moreno and bassist Sergio Vega boisterously flinging themselves across a fog-drenched stage, the set might have proved successful. The problem was that the band just didn’t sound good. A rager like “My Own Summer (Shove It)” doesn’t need much finesse, but many of the group’s other tunes do, with “Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)” getting lost in the muddy sound and “Knife Prty” barely recognizable outside of guitarist Stephen Carpenter’s unmistakable lead in. Deftones are still an endearing band even when not sounding their bestl Moreno’s stage presence and dopey grin sell the aggressive tunes, despite the occasional unfortunate “yeah bitch” or “get it, girl” exclamation. For the casual observer, though, it wasn’t a performance to be won over by. –Philip Cosores


    Bloc Party

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    Photo by Carlo Cavaluzzi

    Bloc Party has a spread-out but large and devoted fan base, and throngs of them showed up for the English indie rockers’ sunset performance on night one. The band’s latest record, Hymns, was widely regarded as a return to form after dabbling in a more electronic sound, and while surely longtime fans found something in their Shaky Knees performance, the band’s hour-long set on the festival’s main stage felt a bit like a band going through the motions. But as they drew from the new record on songs like “Virtue” and peppered the setlist with standard numbers like “Banquet”, frontman Kele Okereke’s vocals were unwaveringly on-point, and his eyes gleamed with an intensity that made a strong case as to why this band continues to land big gigs. –Dacey Orr


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    The Front Bottoms

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    “The good thing about playing early is you still have the rest of the day to get fucked up,” announced The Front Bottoms’ leader Brian Sella, and the early afternoon sun also proved kind to sing-along songs. “Au Revoir (Adios)” and “The Beers” found sizable, enthusiastic responses, the audience finishing Sella’s lyrics on cue. Up against other 2016 rock bands, The Front Bottoms are often out of place with their hyper-lyrical, earnest-as-fuck songwriting. And even if their emphasized wordplay doesn’t amount to a whole lot, being out of fashion suits the band. It’s a calling card when a decade ago, they would have blended right into the wallpaper. —Philip Cosores


    Houndmouth

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    This was one of the first festival dates Houndmouth have played since losing founding member Katie Toupin, and longtime fans will certainly notice the absence of her voice as well as her role in the band’s playful onstage dynamic. That’s not to say Houndmouth’s set wasn’t a good one — Zak Appleby and Matt Myers have emerged as dual frontmen, and as they ran through tracks like “Black Gold” and “Honey Slider”, it was clear that their recent lineup change hasn’t particularly damaged them with the masses. Breakout single “Sedona” was a highlight, garnering many crazed screams and sing-alongs from the sizeable crowd, and the band closed out their set with humorous number “My Cousin Greg” — a song with as much personality as the wild suits they were wearing in the Georgia heat. –Dacey Orr


    Craig Finn

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    Photo by Carlo Cavaluzzi

    Delivering on the depth of songs like “No Future” and “Terrified Eyes” despite the contrastingly bright day, Craig Finn performed with a laid-back confidence befitting his veteran-indie-rocker status, letting the lyrics provide the intensity with scattered commentary in between. Fans of The Hold Steady should be prepared for something very different when taking in Finn solo, but not necessarily any less gripping: Finn’s wearied perspective and scaled-down tone and tempo make for an introspective listening experience that keeps you thinking throughout. Set closer “Trapper Avenue”, a number from Finn’s 2015 release, Faith in the Future, was a highlight, leaving listeners with what felt simultaneously like a warning, a blessing, and a goodbye bid. –Dacey Orr


    Silversun Pickups

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    Photo by Carlo Cavaluzzi

    Silversun Pickups preceded current tour opener Foals on Saturday’s lineup, and the band’s renewed sense of energy (not to mention a shout-out or two) would lead you to believe the two acts are getting along swimmingly. Nikki Monninger and Brian Aubert were more lively onstage than they’ve been in recent years, and the set was better for it, breathing new life into older songs while making the newer material sound all the more inviting. Of course, the set closed out with “Lazy Eye”, enticing even those at the back to stand up and get moving before the stage switched over to powerhouse Foals. –Dacey Orr


    The Head and the Heart

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    Photo by Carlo Cavaluzzi

    The Head and the Heart have their particular brand of harmony-driven indie folk down to a science, and seeing them execute is always a treat. You either enjoy that kind of accessible roots-pop sound or you don’t, but for a festival whose inaugural year featured The Lumineers as a headliner, this was an audience pegged to dig THatH from the start. The standout number was “Let’s Be Still”, the title track from their 2013 sophomore record, and the band’s chemistry with one another onstage made for a performance capable of not only delighting current fans, but winning new ones. –Dacey Orr


    Deer Tick

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    Photo by Carlo Cavaluzzi

    A Deer Tick set is always a safe bet, whether you’re catching them in a dirty dive bar singing cover songs or a sweltering festival stage running through originals. Saturday was no exception; rising through the ranks with non-stop touring in their early years has lent John McCauley and company an easygoing air and a confidence on stage that seeps into everything from the instrumentals to the grisly vocals and the laid-back audience. Clad in coveralls and rain boots despite sunny skies, McCauley led the audience in fan favorites like “Ashamed” alongside more widespread party anthems like “Let’s All Go to the Bar”, paving the way for the good times to continue into the evening. –Dacey Orr


    Frightened Rabbit

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    For the boozy Scottish five-piece Frightened Rabbit, a 2:30 set time might not find the band in its peak shape, and frontman Scott Hutchison alluded to that early, noting that it was too early for a rock show. But the group was able to navigate the terrain, Hutchison realizing that he had to do his rocking out near the back of the stage in the shade. It was a lazy Sunday for the audience, too, with the masses content on their blankets, extending deep across the park. But that didn’t stop them from perking up for the first notes of “The Modern Leper”. “You make me feel like Eric Clapton,” Hutchison said, “like on the Unplugged album, cheering for the first notes of a version of ‘Layla’ that you’ve never heard.” It might have been a bit early to rock, but it wasn’t too early to be a rock star. –Philip Cosores


    Eagles of Death Metal

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    “I appreciate the fact that you are standing in the sun ready to rock and roll,” shouted Eagles of Death Metal’s Jesse Hughes to his formidable audience before launching into a riff-heavy, high-speed set. And if anyone was ready to rock and roll, it was the California-based group, who delivered a noisy yet technically impressive set both instrumentally and vocally. Opener “I Only Want You” stood out in the set list, but it was hard to pick favorites as they railed through the hour and engaged with the crowd. If you want to thrash around and get down to some good rock music (and Atlanta surely did on Sunday), Eagles of Death Metal make it hard to go wrong. –Dacey Orr


    Brian Fallon

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    Photo by Carlo Cavaluzzi

    Brian Fallon’s kind of minimalist performances really hit you in the gut with the lyrics — you almost notice a particularly clever new turn of phrase every time you hear a song again. In the live setting, Fallon has a quality that makes the whole experience feel somewhere between an intimate moment with an old friend and a first-time meeting with a prolific stranger. He talked back, shutting down hecklers requesting old or full-band material in the wrong setting, but he also shared a little piece of himself between every song, joking about his onstage quirks and thrown-out song titles. –Dacey Orr


    Ought

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    Photo by Carlo Cavaluzzi

    Post-punk rockers Ought took over the mainstage on Sunday afternoon with an all-encompassing, almost robotic vibe and a no-frills stage setup that let the music speak for itself. “Beautiful Blue Sky”, one of last year’s best songs, struck a chord for its contradictions, citing industrial- and violence-tinged terms alongside lyrics about beautiful weather and blue skies (of which we had plenty). “I’m no longer afraid to dance tonight, because that’s all that I have left” was a beautiful sentiment paired with a thought-provoking lyrical undertone, and it was a refreshing discourse amid a day of more accessible pop bands. –Dacey Orr


    Day Wave

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    Photo by Carlo Cavaluzzi

    One of the cool things about the way Shaky Knees is presented is that four of the five total stages are pretty huge. Being set up in pairs, smaller up-and-coming bands are getting a bigger platform than they’re likely to see anywhere else — it almost seems like the promoter is using that power to throw his weight behind the bands you just need to see now. Day Wave is exactly the kind of band to take that opportunity and run with it, serving up a dose of Drums-esque buoyant indie pop from the Boulevard stage and effectively winning over the large crowd before dropping the revelation — a shocking one, by then — that this was their first festival ever. To play a stage that large on your first festival appearance may be a feat in and of itself, but their sunny set leads me to believe the stages will only be getting bigger. –Dacey Orr


    The 1975

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    One of the storylines for music in 2016 will be the emergence of The 1975 from their role as critically dismissed teen fodder to legit festival headliner. For the largely young and female faithful that camped out throughout motherfucking Ghost to be front row for their favorite band, the British four-piece had nothing to prove. But sporting their own light show and a 90-minute slot, opener “Love Me” was less a request than a foregone conclusion. How can you not fall for the ’80s-infused fun or the cigarette-in-hand ballad “Change of Heart”? When frontman Matthew Healy gyrates his body like a motorboat or whips his curly locks, it’s without pretension. And The 1975’s lack of pretension is resonating in a time where pop is taken more seriously than ever. What might have been a bold and brave booking on paper made total sense by the end of Friday night. –Philip Cosores


    Parquet Courts

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    Photo by Carlo Cavaluzzi

    Parquet Courts strikes that perfect midday festival balance, laid-back listening that somehow simultaneously sounds like the kind of music you’d want to soundtrack a sports commercial. The band, whose third full-length, Human Performance, was released last month on Rough Trade, is what a lot of bands strive for: thought-provoking and sharp, but enjoyable even in the moments when you’re not looking to dig into meaning. To see Parquet Courts on the stage right now is to watch a rising band really hit its stride, and it’s a damn enjoyable task. –Dacey Orr


    Huey Lewis and the News

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    Photo by Philip Cosores

    Much has been said about the homogenization of music festivals, and in general, it is pretty fair criticism. But occasionally a festival lands a creative booking, and with Shaky Knees, nothing stood out on the lineup like Huey Lewis and the News performing Sports. And, it’s one thing to think outside the box. The fear is that you’ll book Huey, and the kids won’t give a shit. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case on Saturday evening. Playing the main Peachtree stage and hamming it up like an uncle, Sports worked like a greatest hits collection, with “I Want a New Drug and “If This Is It” finding the audience roaring with approval.

    The News were given their individual chances to shine, a saxophone solo here and a guitar solo there, but really it was Huey’s show. He reminded the audience that the songs came from a bygone era before cell phones and the internet, unintentionally drawing a distinction in just how music is currently shared and disseminated. Enough good grace was earned that Lewis could play a new song and not see the crowd bail on him. Thirty-three years hasn’t seen Huey Lewis become cool, but fit right in with an omnivorous festival community caring less about cultural currency and more about familiarity and good vibes. –Philip Cosores


    Foals

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    Photo by Carlo Cavaluzzi

    Foals’ set drifted between loud-as-hell rock show and catchy dance-pop showcase, hitting songs like “Mountain on My Gates” with a good nature and a groove that apparently left the sizeable audience relatively speechless. “I like your reverent silence,” joked frontman Yannis Philippakis. “That’s Southern hospitality, right?” On top of being a damn-good dance party, Foals’ banter was a reminder of the community building in this quick-growing Atlanta fest as they recalled their set at the 2014 Shaky Knees, when it poured down rain and the music went on anyway. The crowd that greeted them this weekend was much bigger and certainly much dryer, but the abandon with which both parties approached the performance was memorable all the same. –Dacey Orr


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