Once again, a veteran music blogger and consummate fan of great music covered Atlanta’s Shaky Knees Festival for Country Fried Rock. Blake Ells is super! –SS
It rained again. A lot. And then it rained some more. After two years, two locations and five total days of Atlanta’s Shaky Knees Music Festival, I’m not sure it would be the same without a torrential downpour. This year, it began around the Airborne Toxic Event’s set on Friday, which was 6 p.m., not sometime around midnight. I managed to find shelter under an overpass that provided entry to the festival, and for nearly an hour, it seemed like things would be better.
Security forced us away from that area after a while, and we were left to a giant parking lot with nowhere to run. And that was Shaky Knees lone fault, in the good times and the bad: while the asphalt of Atlantic Station allowed patrons to not be forced trekking through the knee deep piles of mud left last year at Fourth Ward, it still let no escape from the rains of Friday and Saturday or the blistering sun of Sunday afternoon. While there were potential places that people could have found shade or relief from the rain in nearby parking decks, those places were closed off to only emergency personnel. If you were soaked, you were soaked and you were going to stand in it. If you were too hot, you were too hot, and you were going to take home a burn if you were ill prepared in the sunscreen department.
But the patrons of Shaky Knees have proven to be a unique community deeply in love with a “Southern Indie” curated lineup that aims to please a niche audience and hasn’t tried to be something other than itself.
No other festival stacks its undercard quite as impressively. Bonnaroo has done a better job of that in 2014 than many others have in recent years, but it’s an eclectic schedule that has a little something for everyone. Shaky Knees, on the other hand, has a lineup that appeals to a very specific audience on every stage and is deep with talent. By sheer coincidence, I have still not seen an entire headlining set at the festival in its two years. I was too rain soaked, miserable and old to care to stand around for The National and Modest Mouse, and as a Birmingham native, getting back to the Magic City at a decent hour seemed much more appealing than seeing the Alabama Shakes close out the weekend, a band that has played everything here from a barge to a brewery.
What lay between those headliners this weekend in Atlanta was nothing short of fantastic.
1. The Replacements – This reunion had the trappings of a cash grab. Our notable current reunions are this, Neutral Milk Hotel and Outkast, and I’m not sure any of those produce new material. In either case, at the end of the weekend’s worst rain on Saturday, Paul Westerberg took the stage with Billie Joe Armstrong in tow. Drummer extraordinaire Josh Freese (The Vandals, A Perfect Circle, Nine Inch Nails, Guns ‘N Roses, The Offspring, Ween, Weezer, etc.) sat behind the kit. And both 90’s punk rock legends spent the duration of the set quiet and unrecognized. A few songs in, Westerberg acknowledged the former by simply saying, “Our little quartet has expanded to a quintet.”
The quintet wove a cover of The Ramones’ “Judy Is a Punk” into a set that last a little over 75 minutes. The set wrapped with a trio of the band’s biggest hits: “Alex Chilton,” “Can’t Hardly Wait,” and “Bastards of Young,” before encoring with “I Don’t Know,” “Customer,” and “I.O.U.” The encore seemed to run longer than their initial intentions, but the performance was beyond any expectation. Now we wait to see if this spawns new music.
SETLIST – Takin a Ride – Love You Til Friday – Maybellene [Chuck Berry cover] – I’m in Trouble – Favorite Thing – Nowhere is My Home – Color Me Impressed – Kiss Me on the Bus – Achin’ to Be – Androgynous – I Will Dare – Merry Go Round – Swingin’ Party – Judy is a Punk [The Ramones cover] – I’ll Be You – Left of the Dial – Alex Chilton – Can’t Hardly Wait – Bastards of Young – ENCORE – I Don’t Know/Buck Hill – Customer – I.O.U.
2. Local Natives – Local Natives did what Local Natives do, as the sun went down on Sunday evening, before the Violent Femmes and Alabama Shakes closed out the weekend. They delivered an energetic set that encouraged crowd participation and amazing percussion that made rock and roll danceable. A Local Natives show is such an unexpected surprise the first time: the natural fear is that the studio sound can’t possibly be recreated live, but it is, and likely better. Few songs reach as powerful of a conclusion as “Sun Hands,” which the band typically closes their set with.
SETLIST – Wooly Mammoth – Breakers – World News – Wide Eyes – You & I – Camera Talk – Airplanes – Out Among the Stars (written by Johnny Cash, but first recorded by Local Natives) – Colombia – Heavy Feet – Who Knew, Who Cares – Sun Hands
3. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit – Among a group of artists that stereotypically fall under the same “Americana” umbrella, which I’ve preferred calling “Southern Indie,” Isbell has reached a point in his career where he is easily the most polished.
Trust me, that wasn’t always the case.
There was a day when Isbell played alcohol soaked, three hour sets loaded with covers. While his health and the people he was around were certainly the beneficiaries of his sobriety, there was quietly another beneficiary that goes unspoken too often: he has become incredibly professional. The best. I noticed it as I made my way over early from the Deer Tick show next door – his entire band was onstage checking levels to perfection during the last half hour of Deer Tick’s set. Not roadies. Not a crew. Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit were the only band I saw all weekend stand on stage for a half hour before their set and make sure the sound being produced was exactly what they wanted. And it was worthwhile.
I’ve seen Isbell over 30 times in the last five years, and I had begun to lose sight of the perfectionist he has become until I spent most of Deer Tick’s set watching him and his band work. He sings with an unrivaled clarity that is bone chilling when he reaches the crescendos of “Cover Me Up,” and each time I hear “Alabama Pines” outside of the state I have lived in for all of my 31 years, I’ve grown to get the same kind of chills. He’s one of the most powerful songwriters in music, and while some grew to know him because of the time that he spent with Drive-By Truckers, his own band has achieved the same level of success and the back story is no longer necessary.
The most unique moment was his invitation of Candi Staton to the stage to sing her own “Heart on a String,” which he covered on his own record “Here We Rest.” It was a spectacular moment, and a generous one that allowed the songstress a quick plug of her upcoming a record, a record that features a collaboration with Isbell and John Paul White.
SETLIST – Flying Over Water – Stockholm – Outfit – Heart on a String (w/ Candi Staton) – Decoration Day – Live Oak – Alabama Pines – Cover Me Up – Traveling Alone – Codeine – Super 8
4. The Hold Steady – The Hold Steady did something I never expected – they played a ton of Boys and Girls in America. I assumed we’d get a heavy dose of Teeth Dreams, and we did, but the band hasn’t forgotten about “Southtown Girls.” The band also greatly benefited from being on the Ponce de Leon stage, one of the smaller stages, as it made their set much more intimate and interactive, something The Hold Steady relies on, something that doesn’t fill up a larger space very well. The new material meshed well, but the sing-a-longs have defined this band and its hardcore fans recited lyrics back to Craig Finn from songs like “Stuck Between Stations,” “Hot Soft Light,” and “Sequestered in Memphis.”
SETLIST – On With the Business – Stuck Between Stations – Big Cig – Sequestered in Memphis – The Swish – You Can Make Him Love You – I Hope This Whole Thing Doesn’t Frighten You – Constructive Summer – Hot Soft Light – Spinners – The Weekenders – Your Little Hoodrat Friend – Southtown Girls – Stay Positive
5. The Gaslight Anthem – This spot was hard, but I settled on one of the other primary bands on my weekend’s agenda for many of the same reasons that The Hold Steady is included: it was on the same, smaller stage which made it an appropriately interactive and communal experience. The band nailed a terrific cover of The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun” and version of The Clash’s version of “I Fought the Law.”
The Guest Appearances.
There was much to be said about folks showing up that weren’t scheduled. Most notably, Billie Joe Armstong’s appearance with The Replacements, though the Green Day lead singer had shown up at the band’s Coachella set, so it wasn’t out of left field.
Vanessa Carlton’s appearance was, if you weren’t previously aware that the pop-turned-country singer is married to Deer Tick front man John McCauley. McCauley himself joined The Hold Steady on stage later in the evening, and on Saturday, Conor Oberst was backed by Dawes.
Easily summed up, the biggest discoveries for me at Shaky Knees in 2014 were Phox and San Fermin. The former reminds me of Merrill Garbus of tUnE-yArDs fronting a Southern Indie band, while the latter reminds me of The National’s Matt Berringer fronting tUnE-yArDs with LeRoi Moore of Dave Matthews Band on baritone sax.
Phox has yet to release a record, but you’ll want to check it out. San Fermi’s eponymous debut was released in 2013, and you can find it in the usual places, but you’ll want to see their live show. And soon.
Year three is always pivotal and I’m eager to see the shape of what this festival becomes. Atlanta’s only other major festival is the revived Music Midtown, and that caters to a much different audience. Shaky Knees is going to continue to grow, but will they continue to cater to an extremely niche audience or reach beyond those bounds?
The former continues to make for a weekend where the rain doesn’t matter.