It goes without saying that Atlanta’s Shaky Knees is a festival that we here at Lockeland Springsteen have a soft spot for, seeing as we’ve covered the thing three years running at this point. While the location has shifted each of these years, from a shopping center parking lot to a metropolitan Atlanta park to a slightly iconic metropolitan Atlanta park, the folks behind the festival have booked a consistently great lineup that draws crowds both local and far-reaching. For this year’s installment, I spread myself as thin as I possibly could, shooting as many performances as I possibly could and trying my hardest to capture the nuances of a mid-level festival trying its best way to climb its way to the top tier.
On the first day, I arrived at Centennial Olympic Park with just enough time to spare to get myself into the photo pit for Philadelphia’s Beach Slang, an emphatic rock group in the same vein as Japandroids, only with a wily middle-aged alcoholic lifer for a frontman. James Alex used to lead 90s punk rockers Weston, but now he commands control of a four-piece of vivacious bandmates that have no choice but to cede their technical skill to Alex’s whims, which, in the case of their Shaky Knees set, led them into hasty, day-drunk covers of Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” and The Cure’s “Just Like Heaven.” Given that the band apparently broke up briefly on stage just two weeks prior, it came as no surprise that this 30-minute set was haphazard at best. That being said, the fact that the band turned in a performance completely outside of the sanitized expectations of time-limited festival sets was refreshing in and of itself. In fact, the impact of Beach Slang’s performance dominated my thoughts while I sought out subsequent counterprogramming in the form of British indie pop outfit/The 1975 openers The Japanese House and the harmonically-inclined folk group Saintseneca. It wasn’t until I circled back to the Piedmont stage (where Beach Slang had played, and backgrounded by the construction of the multi-billion dollar future home of the Atlanta Falcons) that I had a taste of anything similarly in the spirit of rock and roll: the well-seasoned Craig Finn, frontman of The Hold Steady and the purveyor of his own solo project, which draws on a more polished version of the drunken Americana that Beach Slang wants to convey so furiously.
The middle section of the day was mostly uneventful, backgrounded by sets from British grunge revivalists Wolf Alice on the main stage, and the uncategorically awful Crystal Fighters on a comparably humble second stage. However, it was when the weather started to break even further (the moderate climates of this year made last year’s sauna seem like a distant memory) that the scheduling began to reach its peak. British post-punk band Savages laid absolute waste to the Ponce De Leon stage, only to be followed up an hour later by English (have we sensed a theme yet?) shoegaze legends Slowdive, playing a visibly emotional set dedicated to Matt Irwin, a recently deceased photographer friend of the band. It was a tough call choosing to enter the contemplative state offered by Slowdive’s music as opposed to indulging in the cathartic release being provided by The Kills at one of the two stages that could only be accessed by going up a rickety set of steps that led into a shipping container that was raised about 20 feet off of a busy downtown Atlanta street, but festivals are built on tough calls like this. Besides, I still eventually had to cross the Bridge of Death to photograph a different English rock band: Internet phenoms The 1975, who drew maybe one of the biggest crowds of the two years that I’ve attended Shaky Knees, thanks to a dedicated following that was even willing to subject themselves to Swedish heavy metal band Ghost opening for them, a solidly hilarious joke played by those in charge of the festival’s schedule. As I was leaving the park to catch an Uber, I overheard main stage headliners Jane’s Addiction playing one of the only songs of theirs that I like, “Been Caught Stealing”, leaving more than satisfied by the opening day programming.
Despite the relatively stacked first day, Saturday was mostly quiet, though bookended by two of the weekend’s best performances. Much like Beach Slang the day before, a Philly band opened the Piedmont stage. The almighty Hop Along, led by Frances Quinlan, indie rock’s best vocalist, ran through a 45-minute selection of the best songs of their first two records, appearing both effortless and feisty in equal measure. Not wanting to walk as much due to how hungover I was at this point in the early afternoon, I stuck around for Day Wave on the adjacent Boulevard stage. Though they were little more than a Drums/Wild Nothing/Beach Fossils tribute act, they proved a great antidote to a crushing sunlight. I then stuck around for a bit of a convincing Noah Gunderson set before heading over to Shakey Graves, a set which was delayed by about 30 minutes due to technical difficulties that were briefly overcome by an unplugged rendition of “Dearly Departed.”
Subsequent hours were filled with cookie-cutter performances by bands like Deer Tick and Phosphorescent, both of whom were solid time-killers for the star of the weekend: Huey Lewis and The News, performing their hit album Sports in its entirety. This is not a joke either, there was a highly dedicated stagefront area filled with people shouting every lyric back to the near septuagenarian Lewis, a magnetic performer even when though he doesn’t need to be. Speaking of cult favorites, Colin Meloy and The Decemberists brought their own dedicated following of bookish festivalgoers, willing to recite the complex poetry of songs with titles like “The Hazards of Love 1 (The Prettiest Whistles Won’t Wrestle the Thistles Undone)” and “The Mariner’s Revenge Song”, though the intense pretension of these songs sent me running over to Foals much quicker than I expected to. Speaking of Foals, the rumors you’ve heard are true. They are, in fact, the most energetic live act in rock music these days. Their songs, which don’t really give way to fervor on record, are whirling dervishes of chaos in the concert setting. Frontman Yannis Philippakis packs more charisma in 5 feet and 7 inches than most bands that played over the course of the weekend could even care to fathom, and made my brief trip over to headliners My Morning Jacket pale in comparison.
Sunday, somehow, ended up being the busiest of the three days, a regrettably accepted truth that was vindicated by a 12:00 performance by the always wonderful (and former UnLocked Session feature) Julien Baker, who brought out more people than I could have ever imagined being there in this situation. However, witnessing a talent like Baker in these early stages is like witnessing a lunar eclipse, so the crowd turnout was actually more appropriate than I initially gave it credit for.
The rest of the day was not so graceful, but rather filled with an excessive amount of zigzagging: from post-punk dudes Ought on the main stage, to the bland Atlas Genius. From the electric Nashville favorite Adia Victoria, to hot messes The Orwells From refined festival champions Unknown Mortal Orchestra, to Diet Cig playing an enthusiastic set despite vocal illness, to Eagles of Death Metal playing a likable set despite its aggressively misogynistic frontman. From Houndmouth wooing its crowd without founding member Katie Toupin to Nothing driving away its crowd with crushingly loud shoegaze. From Deftones playing to its dedicated fans, to Explosions in the Sky ringing in the Sunday sunset with beautiful post-rock to At The Drive-In dropping the hammer on the weekend with a set specifically counterprogrammed to the top-billed pop superstars Florence + The Machine.
The final day had a little bit of something for most people, which is one of Shaky Knees’s greatest strengths. Despite the fact that it is, for the most part, a “white dudes with guitars” festival, that stereotype fades when you realize the quality of the acts booked within those limitations and the effort put forth to breaking through, as the limitations are mostly the fault of modern audiences in the first place. Sociopolitical gripes aside, we experienced another great weekend of great music, and we look forward to coming back next year.
Photos and words by Kevin Brown