Thoughts from Shaky Knees Music Festival (5/8-5/10)


I believe Shaky Knees — in its third location in as many years — is a festival designed with a person like me in mind, and I’ll be interested to see if that remains true as the young festival continues to grow and evolve.

Although there were multiple moments over the course of the weekend in which I thought or said, “I’m too old for this shit” — both on account of the number of much younger faces I saw all around and my waning willingness to traipse all over the festival-grounds in unseasonably hot weather – the lineup seemed catered to someone of my vintage. The Strokes, Wilco, Pixies, Social Distortion, Ryan Adams, Noel Gallagher, Old Crow Medicine Show, and Neutral Milk Hotel would have been very, very solid draws at a music festival in 2004. Hell, several acts who received mid-tier billing for Shaky Knees could have drawn nice crowds a decade ago. Just look at The Mountain Goats, Built to Spill, Aimee Mann, and Old 97’s down there in the middle of the bill. The only top-billed act who didn’t exist ten years ago was Tame Impala.

The lineup also seemed to cater to the fact that, while I enjoy a good craft beer now and then, I have absolutely no interest in staying up all night on party drugs. I never once saw an individual actively in the depths of drug-induced paranoid psychosis. Having attended Bonnaroo three times, I can report that you can’t walk twenty paces on the Farm without coming across someone who is having a Bad Time. While I came across a few folks who were on Struggle Street as a result of the heat, it was nice to see the majority of festival-goers upright and functional.

Part of the easy-going atmosphere might be chalked up to the festival’s ethos of “no button pushers.” Shaky Knees founder, Tim Sweetwood, has mentioned in interviews that he wants to book performers who actually play instruments. Sweetwood’s goal, it seems, is to stay away from artists who just stand on stage and push buttons on their MacBooks. Although Shaky Knees strayed from that mission slightly by booking acts such as Panda Bear and Milky Chance, the majority of acts on the lineup fit under the loose umbrella of rock ‘n roll.

Despite the heat, I had a great weekend. Out of all of the music festivals I’ve ever attended, this year’s Shaky Knees very well may have been the most enjoyable. If the lineup at next year’s Shaky Knees is half as good as this year’s, I’ll definitely be in Midtown Atlanta over the Mother’s Day weekend.

Here are the sets I enjoyed the most this year:

Nikki Lane: I only caught part of Lane’s 12:30, Sunday set, but I quite liked what I heard. Her charisma, stage presence, and voice call to mind a twangier Jenny Lewis. And, man, her band cooked. They added just enough atmosphere and color to add a level of intrigue to, but not distract from, Lane’s hooky songs.

Mac Demarco: The 25-year-old Canadian’s stage presence is almost as bizarre as his music. Musically, he does stoned garage ditties, slacker blues songs, and atmospheric synth jams. Onstage, he cracked inside jokes with his bandmates, seemed to, at times, openly deride or mock his audience, and had his band perform an ironic cover of Coldplay’s “Yellow” while he changed out a broken string on his guitar. Demarco’s a difficult guy to pin down, but I was utterly captivated by his set.

Old Crow Medicine Show: I know we’re now several years into the Old Crow backlash, but these guys are just such a joy to see live. This was the second rowdiest crowd I saw all weekend. Every time Ketch and the boys played one of their stompers, a massive circle hoedown broke out in the middle of the crowd. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and it was a fun sight to behold.

The Both:

For me, this was the best surprise of the weekend. It turns out that if you put Aimee Mann and Ted Leo together in a band, they will write melodies for days. I purchased their self-titled album the second I got back to Savannah.

Pixies: Pixies-3

Anytime you get to hear “Bone Machine” and “U-Mass” back-to-back is a good time. A recently sober Dave Lovering has the band sounding tighter than it has in years. Indie goddess Kim Deal might be gone, but her replacement, Paz Lenchantin, brought a new level of enthusiasm to the proceedings (even if she can’t hit the high notes quite like Kim could).

The Mountain Goats: John Darnielle’s band released a concept album about professional wrestling earlier this year, which is so fantastically uncool, it circles all the way back around to being one of the coolest things a band could possibly do. These guys played a tight, fun set. Darnielle dusted off “Cubs in Five” and “Alpha Omega” during his solo portion of the set, and the whole band closed things out with a raucous rendition of “No Children.”

Neutral Milk Hotel: I’ve never seen Jeff Mangum and his band of indie heroes before, and from the sound of it, this was very well my last opportunity. They didn’t disappoint. As I listened to one shimmering pop gem after another, I was reminded that Mangum is surely one of the best and most interesting songwriters of the last twenty years.

FIDLAR: THIS was the rowdiest crowd of the weekend. A pit broke out; beer cans and shoes and miscellaneous trash were wildly flung around (my friend was actually hit in the face by a sandal—she was okay); the entire crowd enthusiastically chanted along to nearly every song. THIS was a fun set. If there are two schools of punk rock, Ramones (read: fun) and The Clash (read: serious), FIDLAR are the current kings of the Ramones school of punk rock. FIDLAR offered a much needed shot of youthful exuberance in a weekend that featured a lot of Dad Rock and a lot of Dad Bods (come on, guys, put your shirts on). Thinking back on this set, I just want to pump my fist and chant the refrain of “Cheap Beer”: “I. DRINK. CHEAP. BEER. SO. WHAT. FUCK. YOU.” Sorry, dads.

Wilco: I don’t think Wilco is capable of disappointing. I’ve seen them four times now, and each time, I walk away saying, “that’s the best band in the world.” They played a tight, hour-and-fifteen-minute, career-spanning set that featured at least one song from each of their studio albums. Wilco knows how to play a festival set: roll out the burners (“Heavy Metal Drummer,” “I’m the Man Who Loves You,” “A Shot in the Arm”) and sprinkle in a few deep cuts for the die-hard fans (“Camera,” “Secret of the Sea,” “Red-Eyed and Blue”). And I finally got to hear them play “Via Chicago!”

Ryan Adams: Okay, I have to go full fanboy for this one. I LOVE Ryan Adams, but somehow I had never seen him live until now. He only got to play an hour, which wasn’t enough, but he used his hour very wisely. He leaned heavily on his hits, strolled out three Cardinals-era epic jams, and even covered Danzig’s “Mother” in honor of Mother’s Day (which is actually not very fitting, he noted after singing it). His new band, The Shining, are just as tight as The Cardinals were, but more versatile. This was my favorite set of the weekend. Long live, Ryan Adams.

Kudos to the organizers of Shaky Knees. It was a wonderful weekend, and I very much hope to be back next year.