The final day of Shaky Knees Fest started with Paper Bird. I discovered the Denver indie-folk band back when MySpace was the best way to find new music, but honestly hadn’t heard much about them since. Turns out they’ve been quite busy in the years since the site’s slow demise, and tour extensively — as a result, the band is impeccably tight. Genny and Esme Patterson and Sarah Anderson’s harmonies greeted sunny skies with gorgeously clear tones — think First Aid Kit meets Nickel Creek with some vaudeville elements.
As the ladies and gents took a bow, I heard a sound that had been largely absent from Shaky Knees: the roar of a loud-as-hell guitar cuing up and letting the fairground know that it was about it to get heavy. My ears pricked up. For the most part, Shaky Knees focuses on Americana, alt-country, and various indie and folk bands, with some back-to-basics rock. With the exception of the late-night Ghost show (I joined into the chorus of “Wait, that Ghost?!” as bewildered attendees flipped through their schedules on Day 1–yes, the Swedish metal band that dresses like a clergy played in conjunction with the indie-folk fest), the bands were pretty light. Crass Mammoth finally gave the earth a good shake (I hear that female-fronted Blood Red Shoes rocked Friday, as well; really bummed I missed that). Quite Queens of the Stone Age and In Utero-era Nirvana in certain moments — the fact that the vocalist bears a striking resemblance to Kurt Cobain certainly contributed to that.
As Crass Mammoth closed out, the familiar sound of an acoustic guitar cued up behind us. I’m happy to follow up on my Shaky Knees preview and report that my beloved Mason Jennings is as talented and charming as ever. He’s an incredibly entertaining solo act to watch: vocals dipping with Lou Reed-esque summertime swagger, inventive guitar work, hooks that are punchy but still saunter. Clever “get the girl back” songs like “Your New Man” had the audience laughing and cheering, and if anyone can make me like a cheesy love song, it’s this guy, with crooning sugary lines like “the past is beautiful like the darkness between the fireflies.” The past is beautiful, Mason. So is our future together. Wink wink.
Once the morning overcast shuffled away early, there wasn’t a cloud in the sky…which sounds delightful after a water-logged weekend, but was pretty oppressive in a giant concrete lot. A suggestion for Shaky Knees next year: more water stations. Attendees were allowed to bring in one empty water bottle and were promised multiple refill stations. While there were certainly multiple stations with volunteers ready to fill up empty vessels with crisp, fresh water, they all were positioned in a single row by the bars and food trucks. I would have liked a stations near both stage groupings, and maybe even a third in between near the merch tents. I spent a lot of my day hiking back to the station, missing a few favorite songs to go get hydrated. Seeing so many families with young kids especially, it would benefit the festival to have water more readily available if they are to remain at Atlantic Station, a place with very, very little shade.
I floated between Stopover alums The Weeks, Deer Tick, and the hydration station. The Weeks are pure fun; I hope we see them back in Savannah soon, before they’re too big for our rooms.
Next up was Blitzen Trapper, who would play one of our aforementioned rooms, The Jinx, the following day (check out Bill’s post). The Portland quintet are a little alt-country, a little jam band-y with some good old mountain-folk influences breezing through. They’re experts of winding down then kicking things back up (the Zeppelin “Ramble On” cover happened at Shaky Knees, too, and was a great chance to show off their technical chops).
Local Natives was absolutely packed. The L.A. band’s dream-daze, rhythm-focused take on indie rock is always interesting and deceivingly complex; they’re another that I’d like to see in a smaller room, as I couldn’t get anywhere near the stage. Petee did, though!
I am a huge fan of “the world’s best bar band,” The Hold Steady. I’d never seen the band live before Shaky Knees, but have poured over videos, obsessed with frontman Craig Finn’s audience interaction and the palpable glee he gets from performing. Even from watching on a tiny computer screen, you can see that he gives his fans his all and treasures every minute of his time on stage. His showmanship, along with his literary-style writing (character arcs that span multiple albums!) have been a huge inspiration for me. He’s also got a reputation for being genuinely appreciative of The Hold Steady fan community, The Unified Scene.
Before the show, I shook Finn’s hand; the rumors are true. He took the time to stop and chat with Petee and me before he grabbed a spot in the crowd for Deer Tick’s performance. A very down-to-earth, nice guy, and the non-performance highlight of the weekend for us starstruck journalists.
The parking garage cast some welcome shade over the crowd as The Hold Steady charged into their set with a raucous new song, “On With The Business.” While I can’t stand the production of Teeth Dreams–muzzled by compression, with Finn’s vocals doubled and slathered in effects — I really appreciated hearing the song out of the studio context; it’s unbridled, classic Hold Steady. Finn — who acts like he’s brand-new to the game and just found out he actually gets paid to do this — grooved, shouted out to and reached for his audience, egging on guitarist Tad Kubler as he shredded his signature Thin Lizzy/Cheap Trick style riffs.
Hearing the familiar crunch of the stadium-rock style “Stuck Between Stations” intro without the album’s bright tinkle of piano keys was unusual (Franz Nicolay, keyboard player, amicably left the band in 2010 and was not replaced), but the band owned it, Kubler and new-ish addition, guitarist Steve Selvidge (formerly of Lucero) filling in the spaces while Finn, beaming, engaged his audience. I was in a cluster of dedicated fans; together, we hollered along, threw our hands to the sky, and happily sweated and jumped in time with favorites. As Finn declares in “Constructive Summer” (the perfect festival song and May anthem), “Our songs are sing-along songs.” They sure are. My voice was gone the next morning.
The set list drew heavily from Boys and Girls in America, Stay Positive, and, of course, 2014’s Teeth Dreams, peppered with Heaven Is Whenever’s “The Weekenders” and, to my delight, Almost Killed Me’s “The Swish” and “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” from the often-overlooked concept album Separation Sunday. Deer Tick’s John McCauley added vocals on “Sequestered in Memphis.” We audience members were taking guesses at what they’d close with; we were all surprised by the choice of “Stay Positive,” the title track off The Hold Steady’s fourth record. It’s a love letter to fans, to small-town scenes and growing up, to rock n’ roll’s integrity. It was a perfect closer.
The thing about Craig Finn is, he is just such an unapologetic nerd about rock ‘n’ roll. The man’s got a Replacements shrine in his apartment. His songs directly reference his and his friends’ rock ‘n’ roll heroes & shout out to friends from the Twin Cities: Iggy Pop, Dillinger Four, Guns n’ Roses, The Pogues, The Ramones. Onstage, he geeked about the Shaky Knees lineup — as if he was attending, not playing a prime spot with his own successful band.
“My favorite band [The Replacements] played!” he exclaimed, as if he was seeing them for the first time.
Finn was genuinely awestruck that they were opening for Violent Femmes, the first band he ever saw in concert, and whose song “American Music” The Hold Steady covered for an extended edition of Boys and Girls in America. “It would have been so easy to sit at home on your couch,” he said. “But you came out to see some rock ‘n’ roll.” Damn straight, we did.
As I watched Violent Femmes begin playing their self-titled 1984 debut in its entirety, beginning with “Blister In The Sun,” I looked around at everyone singing in the crowd and spotted Finn among us; not stage-side with some other performers and VIPs, but in the audience. I remembered the first time I picked up a Femmes CD, the way it inspired me to go home and beat the hell out of an acoustic guitar, even if I only knew a couple chords.
The network of bare necessities–vocals, guitar, bass, and drums — that created a timeless force of nature at the Shaky Knees shows was like looking at a rock ‘n’ roll timeline–a timeline that’s unfinished. Finn’s unabashed fandom for Paul Westerberg. Paul Westerberg’s obsessive love of Big Star’s frontman, which resulted in one of the finest rock cuts of the ‘80s, “Alex Chilton.” Big Star’s Alex Chilton’s love for The Rolling Stones, referencing “Paint It Black” in his band’s “Thirteen”: “Rock ‘n Roll is here to stay. Come inside where it’s okay.”
Shaky Knees is a fan’s haven. I’m thrilled to see what they come up with next year.
text by Anna Chandler, photos by Petee Worrell