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.
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.
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.