In only its second year, Atlanta’s Shaky Knees Music Fest has become the one to beat. Doubling its size from last year’s premiere at the Masquerade Music Park, the new location of Atlantic Station could be the permanent venue for years to come. There is plenty of parking, tons of restaurants and shopping and it is convenient to public transportation. Music promoter Tim Sweetwood’s vision of an alternative music festival has been realized and looks to be here to stay (hopefully).
The Shaky Knees name comes from a line from the My Morning Jacket song “Steam Engine,” and oddly enough, MMJ’s Jim James played the first SK last year.
Day one’s highlights were numerous. Among others were Sleeper Agent, The Whigs, Band of Skulls, Dropkick Murphys, Foals, Cage the Elephant, Spoon, the Gaslight Anthem and Friday’s headliner The National.
As Dropkick Murphys prepared to take the stage, fans were treated to The Chieftains’ and Sinéad O' Connor’s “The Foggy Dew” over the loudspeakers. A real treat, straight outta Ireland. The band proceeded to set the place on fire, playing many crowd faves, including a few nods to others, including a medley of Bachman Turner Overdrive’s “Takin’ Care Of Business,” Grand Funk Railroad’s “American Band” and ending with a touch of the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Finally, bagpipers fired up a beautiful “Amazing Grace” which quickly morphed into a kick-you-in-the-teeth version of the 18th century Christian hymn.
Lita Ford’s “Kiss Me Deadly” welcomed the Gaslight Anthem to the stage, but she was soon forgotten as the quartet ripped into “59 Sound” and didn’t look back. Lead vocalist Brian Fallon seemed genuinely pleased with the fan turnout and reaction to their music. With a mix of punk, heartland rock and a sprinkle of fellow New Jerseyan Bruce Springsteen, the Gaslight Anthem work hard for their money – and they have the fans to fire them up in the process. Playing a good mix of their four album releases, most were taken from 2008’s The ’59 Sound. The band covered the Animals’ 1964 version of the classic “The House Of The Rising Sun,” sharing that Eric Burdon was “…one of the greatest rock voices ever.”
Headlining Day One were Brooklyn’s (by way of Cincinnati) indie rock gods The National, who brought with them an extraordinary backing screen on which images, designs and blurred/static images of performing band members were projected. Touring in support of their excellent recent release Trouble Will Find Me, the band gained massive exposure with 2010’s High Violet, and then some more with this year’s critically acclaimed documentary Mistaken for Strangers.
Leader Matt Berninger wears his passion on his sleeve, almost coming off as someone with an anger problem, pacing back and forth and slamming the mic stand to the stage. But as the crowd’s energy surges, the band raises the stakes, resulting in an all-out blast of rock and roll magic. A large fan base was present as witnessed by thousands singing along to most songs.
With Berninger’s baritone accompanied by the band’s tight and exceptional musicianship, the group seemed unstoppable. Rounding out the quintet are brothers Scott Devendorf on bass and Bryan Devendorf on drums along with twins Aaron Dessner on guitar and keyboards and Bryce Dessner on guitar.
Throughout the afternoon and evening, a steady rain fell on the throngs of music fans, pouring at times. This deterred no one, and only fueled the excitement as each consecutive band’s fan base grew. As Shaky Knees was in its inaugural season last year, it seems a rainy affair may become tradition for the fest.
Day Two would be another terrific affair, with Hayes Carll, Tokyo Police Club, Lord Huron, Dawes, Portugal. The Man, Conor Oberst, Jenny Lewis, The Replacements and headliners Modest Mouse.
L.A.’s Dawes has blown up since last year’s smash Stories Don’t End. Taylor Goldsmith possesses songwriting, vocal and guitar-slinging skills not common in most bands these days. With a flair for folk rock (emphasis on rock), Goldsmith led the foursome through a too-short set including “Most People” and “From A Window Seat,” both off the new record.
A couple of sets later, Dawes backed Omaha native Conor Oberst in his one-hour slot. Playing selections from his soon-to-be-released album Upside Down Mountain, Oberst is best known for his nearly 20 years at the helm of Bright Eyes. The new album continues Oberst’s slow evolution from indie rock into folk.
Portugal. The Man began their set with “Purple Yellow Red And Blue” (from last summer’s Evil Friends) and ended an hour later with a reprise of the same song, which followed an inspired version of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick In The Wall, Pt. 2.”
While all these acts were inundated with screaming fans, the real winners this day were fans of The Replacements. The garage punk band from Minneapolis forged their way through the eighties with some of the decades best music. After years of Westerberg and his mates doing independent work, the band was only recently revived and haven’t released any new music (besides last year’s charity EP Songs for Slim) since 1990’s All Shook Down.
As stage time for the band approached, the deluge that had soaked each and every human began to subside. The band actually hit the stage ten minutes late, maybe waiting for the rain to die down. But the fans were ready and the chanting began. To possibly make up for this, Paul Westerberg and the boys pushed their end time 15 minutes past schedule (a rare thing at Shaky Knees, as the time slots were religiously adhered to). But these are the Mats and the crowd couldn’t be happier.
Joined onstage by Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong (who clearly grew up inspired by these guys), the band played an astounding 22 tunes including “Bastards Of Young,” “Can’t Hardly Wait,” “Kiss Me On The Bus,” “Alex Chilton” (in which Westerberg briefly forgot the lyrics), “Takin’ A Ride” and “I Will Dare.” A couple of covers were tossed in for good measure: Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” and the Ramones’ “Judy Is A Punk.” They pulled something off every studio album.
This was truly a highlight for Shaky Knees and topping the Replacements will be a tall order for next year.
Isaac Brock and his band Modest Mouse were the headliners and pulled heavily (more than half the set list) from The Moon & Antarctica (2000) and 2004’s Good News for People Who Love Bad News. The pride of Issaquah, Washington, Modest Mouse thrilled fans with a nearly 90-minute set list. While many festival goers were overheard saying, “Modest Mouse? The Headliner? – the number of fans sticking around to hear them play argues the case.
Finally, Day Three brought lots of sun and no rain (actually, a little sprinkle might’ve felt good). On tap today would be such acts as Langhorne Slim & the Law, Deer Tick, Jason Isbell, Iron & Wine, Trampled By Turtles, The Hold Steady, Local Natives, Kopecky Family Band, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, Violent Femmes and headliners Alabama Shakes.
For many present, the Hold Steady were a revelation. Craig Finn is energy incarnate. He is a punk rocker in a businessman’s body, black-framed glasses and all.
Drawing from all six of the Hold Steady studio albums, the true highlights were several tunes from the new Teeth Dreams including “Spinner,” “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” and “Big Cig.” The killer tunes “Sequestered In Memphis,” “Southtown Girls” and the closer “Stay Positive” (he announced this one with, “Stay positive, Atlanta!”) brought the fans to a boil. During one song, Deer Tick’s John McCauley joined the band onstage.
Nashville indie rockers Kopecky Family Band seemed to be channeling a 21st century Fleetwood Mac, with Kelsey Kopecky and Gabe Simon sharing vocals to some fun and invigorating selections. Playing on the Boulevard Stage (the smallest of the four), the Kopeckys thrilled the crowd with songs from their debut album Kids Raising Kids, as well as last fall’s EP We’ve Got It Covered. The semi-hit “Heartbeat” was quickly recognizable. This band deserves a bigger stage.
Violent Femmes left quite an impression on the fans. Original members Gordon Gano (lead vocals, guitar) and Brian Ritchie (bass guitar) have recently been joined by Dresden Dolls drummer Brian Viglione, who by all accounts left a small crater in downtown Atlanta with his incredible thrashing of the skins. Pretty sure that guy burned half a million calories during this set. Ritchie announced, “If you didn’t know it, that was our debut that we released 31 years ago.” That debut is one of the most well-known albums from the post-punk era of the early eighties, including some of the best sing-alongs of the weekend. Youngsters stood in shock and awe as everyone over 40 was screaming the lyrics to “Blister In The Sun,” “Kiss Off,” “Add It Up,” “Prove My Love” and “Gone Daddy Gone.”
“Now we’re gonna do some bluegrass,” said Ritchie. Gano retorted, “But first – just thought of this – something for Mother’s Day,” as he broke into the haunting and shockingly beautiful Hank Williams’ tune “I Heard My Mother Praying For Me.” It was just vocals and a plucking violin. "Thanks Mom. And Hank,” Gano said. Keeping the faith, the band then broke into “Jesus Walking On The Water.”
Discovered in 1981 by Pretenders’ guitarist James Honeymoon-Scott while they played on a Milwaukee street corner, the Femmes went on to sell millions of records, but never matched the success of the 1983 debut. The band still possesses the potency of their younger selves. Viglione later posted on his Facebook wall, “Thank YOU guys. That was the most fun I’ve had playing a show in a long time!”
The Alabama Shakes are still touring in support of their 2012 debut smash Boys & Girls, and they actually do hail from Alabama. The soul/rock combo is headed up by firestarter Brittany Howard, who just might be a reincarnated Janis Joplin. Word is that the much anticipated second album is finished but no release date has been announced.
As the hot day came to a close, the Shakes wrapped up Shaky Knees with a very hot set. Once again, these guys aren’t the biggest name on the menu, but quickly convinced concertgoers that they deserved the slot.
Shaky Knees seems destined for greatness as music fests go, even getting a mention in a recent Rolling Stone article. This not only promotes the best of alternative music, it also gives Atlanta music fans a much deserved weekend of awesomeness. Fans are already looking forward to next year.