Shaky Knees Music Festival 2017 Review: The 10 Best Performances

The ultimate Atlanta weekend for "bands actually playing fucking instruments"


    Fittingly, it was one of the first acts on Friday of Atlanta’s Shaky Knees Music Festival that illuminated the fest’s most significant quality and set the scene for the rest of the three-day event’s fifth anniversary.

    “I’m legit-hyped for this lineup, you guys,” said Zipper Club’s Mason James, drawing cheers from virtually everyone within earshot at Centennial Olympic Park. “There are bands playing fucking instruments – it’s pretty cool.”

    Yeah, it is pretty cool, particularly in the current era where large-scale music festivals are increasingly booking more mainstream and DJ/EDM acts, which in many cases are the antitheses of such events’ originally intended vibes, to sell more tickets. Just look at Bonnaroo, who – after selling tens of thousands fewer tickets last year – caved and added a stage this year, much like Coachella’s Sahara tent, entirely dedicated to dance music and hip-hop. In other cases, festivals are pressured to ante up by adding culinary experiences or massive arts components, but you can’t knock ‘em too hard for employing those strategies – the majority demographic of those willing to pay for and endure multi-day, outdoor music events is shifting, so these are merely necessary survival tactics as the oversaturation of festival choices continues to thicken the world over.


    However, Shaky Knees founder and longtime local promoter Tim Sweetwood – in partnership with ACL Fest and Lollapolooza masterminds C3 Presents – came up with an ingenious solution: Rather than taint the fest’s rock roots (the moniker is based on a My Morning Jacket lyric, if that’s any indication), they launched an entirely separate event primarily for EDM, Shaky Beats Music Festival, slated for the weekend before. In combination with a footprint downsized from five stages to three this year (largely lauded as an improvement), the result was one of the most intimate festival environments – a comparatively modest 50,000 tickets sold across all three days – one could hope for to catch the likes of major fest vets like Phoenix, LCD Soundsystem, and Ryan Adams. Of course, there were some artists that somewhat crossed over into “beats” territory: Sylvan Esso and Nick Murphy (fka Chet Faker), for example, but namely the xx, whose increasingly dance-influenced vibes unsurprisingly drew a larger audience than any other act all weekend.

    With the magical absence of forecasted storms – the couple quick showers on Saturday and Sunday were hardly a bother – it was a nearly perfect instruments-based music bash. Save for one significant pitfall: With mostly white dude-dominated bands decking out each day’s roster, the weekend’s fare suffered from an overall lack of diversity, so there’s certainly an opportunity to embrace a more wide-ranging approach in the future (i.e. more female and ethnically varied headliners). That said, click through to read up on the Top 10 sets we caught this weekend, and make sure to peep our exclusive photo gallery.


    10. Pixies

    More than three decades into their career, there are still countless people who harbor judgment about Pixies based on their name – “They’re, like, soft indie rock, right?” they ask, clueless to the reality that the Boston band’s renowned raucousness heavily influenced the ‘90s grunge and alt movements.

    With that in mind, the group pulled off what felt like a smart bait and switch during their Friday night sub-headlining set on the Piedmont stage: start with stuff that most people know – a hat trick of hits: “Gouge Away”, “Wave of Mutilation”, and “Monkey Gone to Heaven” – then bust out tons of tunes that might take the casual listener off guard with their punishingly loud, punk and alt rock intonations. Perhaps the strategy was unintentional, but more than a few peeps in the packed crowd looked shocked as the quartet raged through “U-Mass”, “Rock Music”, “Isla de Encanta”, and “Something Against You.” As some of the fest’s oldest performers, they may not have had the thrust of Iggy Pop incarnate Matt Shultz as he riled up the main stage crowd with Cage the Elephant across the park, but they resounded at least a frenetically as FIDLAR, who had helmed the same stage just before.

    Black Francis’ inimitable screams were enough to keep people there at least through “Where Is My Mind?”, at which point half the audience turned tail to post up for LCD. Their loss: Given the five-minute distance between stages, there was no reason to miss the galloping grit of “Cactus”, the happy-go-lucky melody of “Here Comes Your Man”, and Joey Santiago’s rippin’ riffs on “Bone Machine”. Regardless of whether they planned it, good on the band for ultimately rewarding the faithful by – among an impressive 20 songs – including relatively rare David Lovering-sung, slightly silly ballad “La La Love You”, insanely rowdy B-side “Nimrod’s Son”, and noise-rock opus “Vamos” before finishing up.


    09. Arkells

    With only a couple dozen people crowding the front of the tiny Ponce de Leon stage early Sunday afternoon, it didn’t seem likely that Canadian rock act Arkells would achieve much of a moment during their Shaky Knees debut.

    Frontman Max Kerman, however, had other ideas: With the kickoff of gospel-rock cut “A Little Rain (A Song for Pete)”, the singer launched himself over the barricade and did a lap around the surrounding pavilion, roping anyone and everyone into singing the soulful refrain: “When the rain starts coming down/ A little rain ain’t bringing me down!”

    The few faithful followers in attendance got veritably hyped after that, and their vibes seemed to fan outward, quickly drawing a steady trickle toward the pit as the band blasted through the Tom Petty-esque uplifter “Never Thought That This Would Happen”, abetted by the boisterous blasts of Athens, GA-based brass trio the Southern Soul Horns.


    By the time the quintet arrived at “Private School” (so reminiscent of Beck’s “E-Pro” but bolstered chiefly by piano and horns), the entire stage area was packed out with enthusiastically jumping festgoers. As that song commenced, the band invited one fan, Billy, to come up and play a simple guitar part. It was an old trick that Green Day used to employ regularly: Though it was inevitably the best moment of the fest specifically for that kid, everyone in the vicinity could relate to his excitement. Nice work, Arkells. Mass catharsis achieved.

    08. Bishop Briggs

    Last month during her Coachella debut, LA-based singer Bishop Briggs performed like she’d won a million bucks. Understandably so – after a Sunday evening act canceled, she got bumped up from her early Saturday afternoon set, then managed to pack out her tent for the new primo spot. Saturday afternoon at Shaky Knees, she drew a similarly sprawling throng to her show on the Piedmont stage, signaling that her draw at the Southern California desert fest wasn’t a fluke.

    She wasn’t quite as hyped this time – her excitement can be measured by how much air she’s getting as she jumps through industrial and hip-hop influenced tracks like “Pray (Empty Gun)” and “Hallowed Ground”. Still, her smile was a mile wide and as utterly disarming as her superbly soulful voice on key cuts like “Be Your Love” and breakthrough single “River”. Like Lorde when she first started out, Briggs’ greenness is somewhat betrayed by her limited spastic dance moves, but at 24 years old, she has plenty of time to polish her onstage poise, and her undeniable skills as a chanteuse – even more genuinely convincing here just one month after her double-showing in Indio – make it exceptionally exciting to imagine ways she’ll develop and deliver during her imminent rise.

    07. The xx

    In many cases, when a band takes four to five years between albums and likewise doesn’t tour during that period, popular interest can wane heavily, but not in the case of The xx. Saturday night at Shaky Knees, for their first US festival headlining spot and first Atlanta show in four years, the British trio drew a crowd more dense than LCD Soundsystem’s the night before, proving not only that their first two albums – 2009’s xx and 2012’s Coexist – left an impression that kept fans waiting on the edge of their seats for more, but also that their latest full-length, I See You (released in January), expounded upon their sonic capabilities with enough strength to launch them to a new level of stardom.

    Indeed, Jamie Smith’s more diverse, upbeat production permeating the new tracks this evening filled the field with dance-worthy vibes that wonderfully complemented the sparsity of older cuts like “VCR” and “Shelter”. “Lips” set the pace early on with its ‘90s R&B intonations, rarely attempted “Replica” (“I’ll try not to fuck it up,” said Romy Madley Croft) adopted a spacious ‘80s aura while spotlighting bassist Oliver Sim’s higher vocal abilities, and “Dangerous” honed in on a click-clacking classic house groove filled out by orchestral horn samples. To boot, Croft and Sim’s performance game is several notches above where it was a few years back, particularly in the case of the former player, who was as convincing in her aggressive, hair-whipping shred stance (“Say Something Loving”, “Islands”, “Infinity”) as she was in moments of somber stoicism (her solo spot with “Performance” was spellbinding).

    So why, then, were there so many inert bodies as far as the eye could see? Barely anyone seemed inspired enough to match the moves of the players on stage. Surely, The xx’s penchant for building tension and only releasing it in strategic spurts made for an enthralling experience, but their show didn’t exactly exert the momentum needed for a day-ending, all-out dance party. The exception was when Smith broke into the beat of solo tune “Loud Places” at the tail end of “Shelter”, but by that time, many of the casually curious had fled, not fully convinced. For festivals, The xx are a safer bet as runner-up headliners.


    06. Portugal. The Man

    Even before Portugal. The Man hit the main stage for their early Friday evening set, the crowd that had gathered was massive. As they launched into upbeat openers “Purple Yellow Red and Blue” and “Holy Roller (Hallelujah)” amid plumes of deep-violet smoke, the audience expanded farther, stretching all the back to the top of the park’s main hill, almost merging with outlying FIDLAR fans at the smaller Piedmont stage.

    P.TM’s draw was at least as expansive as LCD Soundsystem’s later that night, which might come as a surprise given the Alaska-bred band’s relatively modest commercial success. But if you’ve followed their progress since officially forming in 2004, the appeal adds up: From 2006 – 2011, the outfit released one full-length album per year, then paused only two years before putting out 2013’s Danger Mouse-produced Evil Friends, their catchiest and most accessible work to date, all the while touring tirelessly, playing countless festivals and club shows to grow a loyal grassroots following.

    Persistence paid off this go-round in the form of the arena-sized audience, who danced and sang along dutifully to a few faves from that latter album (“Hip-Hop Kids”, “Atomic Man”, “Modern Jesus”), plus one of the first signs in four years of forging forward, new single “Feel It Still”. That no-frills pop-rock quick-hitter is set to appear on the band’s 8th album, Woodstock, recently set for a June 16th release after the band scrapped a previously announced album, Gloomin + Doomin, produced by the Beastie Boys’ Mike D. The new track’s chorus was easily memorized and a blast to bop along to – “Ooh woo, I’m a rebel just for kicks, now/ I been feeling it since 1966, now” – but was a quickly forgotten blip compared to the 13-minute ending jam on “All Your Light (Times Like These)”, which concluded with an insanely heavy coda of the breakdown on The Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”. That epic ending was an example of how the group has retained its integral prog-rock weirdness of the early days, even as they’ve latched onto happier hooks more recently. To that end, bless them for still throwing in that quick cover of “Day Man” from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia – the fans went as wild for both of those quirky inserts as they did for the hits.


    05. Ryan Adams

    Only Ryan Adams with his brash yet charming perfectionism would make a crack about redoing a solo screwed up by a broken string, then actually carry it out to prove just how incredible it was supposed to be.

    The hilarious but badass highlight occurred closer to the end of the North Carolina songwriter’s Sunday evening set to close out the Piedmont stage. As he and his band burst into the borderline-desert-rock extended breakdown of “Magnolia Mountain” – “the part that sounds like Steely Dan are mad,” as he put it – a string snapped mid-solo, and though he finished it nearly seamlessly in true rock star form with only a brief pause to plug in a new guitar rushed out by a roadie, he insisted on the second take.

    “That was such bullshit! That was my shred moment, and it got fucked up! Fuck it, I’m doing it anyway” he exclaimed, cuing up his crew and then stepping out onto the stagefront speakers to strike his best glam-rock pose for the solo’s reprise.


    The moment was one of many where Adams asserted his typical hilarious snarkiness – he repeatedly claimed his band was “the new-material Shins,” whose sound bled faintly from across the field, and at one point joked that a song-requester shouting from the crowd would be disappointed when he found out the rest of the set would be Rush covers. Yet, those were merely an entertaining addendum to instances of grace from his vast catalog (“Two”, “When the Stars Go Blue”), highlights from his fantastic new Americana album, Prisoner (“Do You Still Love Me?”, “Doomsday”, and “Outbound Train”), and Southern-tinged rock tour de force (“Shakedown on 9th Street”). All proof that – despite his spats of silliness – Adams inevitable asserts himself as one of the most seriously prolific songwriters of the past two decades every time he steps on stage.

    04. Bleachers

    A quick survey of front-row fans at the Piedmont stage led to a perhaps unlikely conclusion: Rather than headlining act Ryan Adams, the main draw at this end of the park – the act worth waiting hours for on the hottest day of the weekend – was Bleachers.

    So it was rather anticlimactic when the uplifting intro tune of “Tomorrow” (from Annie) gave way to … nothing. Something was messed up with the stage’s sound so that, for about 10 minutes, none of the instruments had any impactful output except frontman Jack Antonoff’s guitar and his saxophonist’s jazzy lines, which kept fans entertained for a moment by playing along to Third Eye Blind’s “Jumper”, which blared from the main stage.

    Kudos to Antonoff, who – despite looking and sounding terribly distressed – remained resilient, wearing a wide grin and opting to get things going with a quiet, guitar-and-sax rendition of “Like a River Runs”. Afterward, he got the thumbs-up from his sound tech, then led one of the most impressive recovery rallies I’ve ever witnessed at a fest.


    Talking a million miles per hour between songs to save time, he and his group tore through 10 more tunes. First album anthems “Shadow”, “Wild Heart”, set-closer “I Wanna Get Better”, and a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way” stood out as some of the loudest sing-alongs staged all weekend. And a trio of new cuts off upcoming album Gone Now – the jazz sax-infused “Everybody Lost Somebody”, screaming guitar solo-strengthened “Hate That You Know Me” and liberating lovers’ call “Don’t Take the Money” – proved that Bleachers are poised, more than any other ‘80s-homaging act right now, to conquer arena crowds.

    03. Sylvan Esso

    “This is fun!” exclaimed Sylvan Esso singer Amelia Meath as the group wrapped up peppier trip-hop-infused track “Die Young” during the duo’s Saturday main stage set. “This is our first festival show for this run and only our second show for this record.”

    No surprise she was feelin’ it at this point – though the day was technically moving into evening hours, the sun was still high and bright, a cooling breeze was blowing steadily after a brief but inconsequential spat of rain, and an enormous audience had amassed at the Peachtree stage, barely anyone among them standing still as she and producer Nick Sanborn introduced groove after infectious groove, focusing on material off just-released sophomore album What Now.

    Sure, such a huge crowd response could’ve been due to the fest’s scheduling – the North Carolina electropop outfit had a full 30 minutes with no conflicts. Then again, it didn’t feel like too many folks bailed to watch Moon Taxi or Lewis Del Mar when they started up across the park. And who could blame them? Refusing to let the huge stage swallow them up, Heath and Sanborn left no room for excuses: As soon as they emerged with the happy bounce-beat of “The Glow”, Heath began twirling, gyrating, kicking, hair-flipping – generally killing it in the dance department even in those absurdly elevated platform shoes – and literally never quit (when the voice sample-heavy house beat breakdown of “H.S.K.T.” abated, she continued to dance through the pause, transitioning seamlessly to a smoother sway for “Mami”). All the while, Sanborn’s enthusiastic beat-making and erratic leaps away from and back to his station made it look like his MPC was jolting him with electric shocks. As far as success rates go for duo acts keeping an audience engaged, Sylvan Esso is the gold standard – no surprise “Just Dancing” delivered one the weekend’s most collectively cathartic moments.


    02. LCD Soundsystem

    “Hi everybody! Miraculously, we’re less than two-thirds of the way through,” said LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy, drawing supportive cheers after rounding out galvanic 2010 cut “Home” Friday night on the main stage.

    Then he began stating the obvious: “Up to this point, we’ve played [all old songs]. Now we’re going to play a song you know. Then we’re gonna play two new songs and two old songs.”

    After each sentence, he paused, giving the audience time to cheer wildly in between, which prompted a joke: “I feel like you’re cheering for everything … we’re going to play the hit by Extreme, and Kevin would like to give a shout-out to dachshunds, the dog.”


    All jibes aside, the fans’ excitement wasn’t just willy-nilly or diminished at all by Murphy laying it out – this was the moment everyone was anticipating: After a set that was essentially the same as every show last year (save for the omission of “Losing My Edge”), here was the festival debut of new material, which – after the thunderously beautiful conclusion of “New York, I Love You but You’re Bringing Me Down” – flowered in the form of recently released double A-side singles “Call the Police” and “American Dream”.

    The pair worked powerfully together live, particularly at such potent volume: The former was led by chugging bass and palm-muted guitar before Nancy Whang’s keys cut in to help it soar into a raucous noise-punk realm – cut with Murphy’s galvanic yelp-refrain echoing the track’s title – previously dominated by “Movement”, while the latter was the comedown-inducing antidote to that initial kinetic kick, a grand electro-waltz – complemented by colorful chemtrail treatment on the Jumbotron visuals – worthy of ‘80s-era Bowie comparisons.

    Before the customary mass-party closer pair “Dance Yrself Clean” and “All My Friends”, Murphy addressed the audience once more, specifically addressing those who might be less familiar with LCD’s catalog: “If your friends say, ‘What were they like?’ say, “I don’t know … they played mostly old songs. The guy was old … I was waiting for the DJ.”


    The roar of resulting laughter indicated that – contrary to the singer’s assumption about the demographic before him – most people were in on the joke. This wasn’t the predominately teenage crowd of Coachella, after all … fair bet that the majority of people who purchased passes for this day did it just for LCD (and most EDM fans got their fix last weekend at Shaky Beats).

    And despite the band playing mostly old songs (and on a personal note: despite seeing this show sans new cuts about eight times last year), everything felt more fresh and frenetic than ever before. How exactly does a band achieve something like that? Truthfully, it’s owed to that fact that their songwriting was ahead of its time even before their brief breakup hiatus. So in the present era – one where the saturation of computer-driven electronic music is giving way to calls for innovation via actual instruments – LCD Soundsystem comes across as one of the most relevant bands headlining major fests. And with the new songs added, this performance felt like much more than a reunion; it marked the beginning of a veritable comeback.

    01. Phoenix

    Anticipation loomed heavy Sunday evening as a couple dozen crew members scurried around the main stage trying to get everything functioning correctly for Phoenix’s first US festival set in three years. At 9 p.m., the French outfit’s setup – a giant hanging mirror angled to reflect a bird’s-eye view of the band standing on what was essentially a Jumbotron doubling as their performance platform – was already 30 minutes late, and they were only slated to play until 10 p.m.

    Ten or fifteen minutes tardy is one thing, but would delaying a whole half hour – and potentially cutting a handful of tunes – be worth the extra hassle?

    Amidst the red-tinted, relative darkness of lead-off song “Ti Amo” – the title track and one of five new songs on the band’s upcoming sixth studio album (due June 9th) – and the similarly high-contrast, strobe-lit “Lasso” to follow, I wasn’t convinced. Then, as the band busted into the exultant breakdown of “Entertainment”, the floor screen suddenly transformed into a vibrant scene of waterfalls flowing through a green hillside, and the resulting reflection, which created the effect that the band was suspended between two spacial dimensions, was dazzling enough to ease any doubts about the production’s impact.


    Similar trippy effects were achieved during the featured fresh cuts: Unremarkable synth-pop single “J-Boy” found the band floating across the surface of an enormous shimmering diamond, chill-paced electro anthem “Role Model” propelled them through some sort of film noir hallway, and encore-kicker “Fior di Latte” – the strongest of the new batch with its gentle cascades that gave way to almost church-like keys over a brisk beat – hypnotized with a neon paint drip effect.

    While it was nice to hear what the band have been up to in the studio, those tunes were much less invigorating than staple dance-inducers like “Listomania” encore finale “1901” and slightly less interesting than the use of older tracks to achieve texture, ebb, and flow (the most enthralling example: “Bankrupt!” bookended by “Love Like a Sunset” parts I and II, which spotlighted guitarists Laurent Brancowitz and Christian Mazzalai’s superb subtleties along vocalist Thomas Mars’ explosive energy in between).

    Any lost time was made up by extending the set a quarter past 10 p.m., at which point Mars finally made his customary pilgrimage into the audience, thanking fans and slapping hands as he ran up the center aisle to the rollicking reprise-riff of “Ti Amo Di Piu” before briefly climbing the lighting tower scaffolding to wave to peeps perched on the overlooking hill, then taking a quick victory-crowd-surf to cap off the weekend’s most conceptually stimulating set by far.


    Click ahead to see an exclusive photo gallery from Shaky Knees 2017.