LCD Soundsystem is perhaps the perfect headliner for a festival like Shaky Knees, which generally attracts a larger range of ages than other festivals. For the young kids that want to dance, they’ve got plenty of that. But as I’ve grown older, I’ve understood just how many of James Murphy’s lyrics I didn’t understand until I started feeling like an adult. Songs I’d heard a million times sound different now to me than when I was in high school listening to Sound of Silver in my car. The band has aged gracefully as well. Older material made up a large chunk of the set, including a stunning version of “Yeah,” but new tracks “Call the Police” and “American Dream” both look primed to fit right alongside LCD’s festival-friendly performance. They were a worthy and powerful headliner, and perhaps no band playing Shaky Knees had an as impressive of a two-song set closer as “Dance Yrself Clean” which sent the crowd into a frenzy, and “All My Friends,” which had festival-goers clutching their pals before heading off into the night, only to return and do it all again in the morning.
Despite their apparent exhaustion, Wolf Parade had no trouble pulling an energetic performance out of an early evening slot on the giant Piedmont stage. Perhaps most exciting, the band brought out plenty of new material ready to test on the road. The new material sounded quite similar to the band we’d heard before, especially featuring dense organ, which often beefed up earlier Queen Mary-era material as well. In good spirits, a warm-hearted and thankful Wolf Parade rewarded listeners who’ve waited long for the band to return to Atlanta.
Car Seat Headrest
Will Toledo emerged in a powder-blue coat and pants. Luckily, he ditched the coat in the hot Atlanta afternoon, but his wardrobe exuded a sense of confidence and swagger that leaked into an impressive early afternoon set. The critically acclaimed (and WUOG 2016 Album of the Year) Teens of Denial dominated most of the set, but the band dipped into Toledo’s impressive back catalog, and brought out a great cover of Devo’s “Sloppy” that added a lot of levity to some of the more dour Car Seat Headrest tunes. Going from “Sloppy” into “Drunk Drivers/Killer Whales” is a theoretically jarring experience, but Toledo’s charming and thoughtful lyrics and the live band’s energy made the set into another demonstration of Car Seat Headrest’s potency and staying power.
After a brief rainfall on Friday evening, Preoccupations took the Ponce de Leon stage. The weather was cooling down and a bit windy, but this was no indication of their set. I was comfortable wearing a light raincoat, but drummer Mike Wallace drummed so furiously that he ended up taking off his shirt midway through the set. The rest of the band also seriously provided a gut-punching, hypnotic show. I was surprised at the unfortunately small turnout, possibly due to their name change (Viet Cong formerly performed as Viet Cong). They gave a fantastic performance of “Bunker Buster,” “Continental Shelf,” and closed the show with an intensely phenomenal rendition of “Death” that was stretched to 15 minutes long (one third of their 45 minute set time).
Cage the Elephant
Cage the Elephant certainly knows how to entertain and engage a crowd. To say that they owe this success all to their charismatic frontman, Matt Shultz, would be a disservice to his older brother and bandmate: rhythm guitarist Brad. Together, the two brothers and their upbeat indie pop make for a dynamic show. Matt spent the evening in constant motion, apart from a few brief seconds that he was forced to pause due to technical difficulties with his earpiece, and Brad played the crowd along with his guitar by jumping off stage and running out into the crowd during his solos. Not to be upstaged, Matt too eventually ventured off-stage multiple times, at one point hugging one of the security guards before planting a kiss on his cheek. The entire set was high-energy and joyful, with Matt reminding the crowd throughout to enjoy life and love one another. The show reached its peak at the very end, when both brothers took to the crowd once more and crowd-surfed as bassist Daniel Tichenor and drummer Jared Champion remained on stage and jammed.
Portugal. The Man
I admittedly was not very familiar with Portugal. The Man beyond name recognition, so I went into their set with an open mind and little expectations, and ended up having a great time. While the band members’ stage presence might have been on the more low-key side of things, the lighting and other stage effects compensated for it. For example, they opened with “Purple Yellow Red and Blue,” and purple fog engulfed the crowd, and various other colored fogs were featured throughout the rest of the set. Led by John Gourley, they played a full hour of neo-psychedelic indie pop (including their own take on “Dayman” from the hit show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), and I could see why they are in demand for the festival circuit— between their sound and relaxed stage presence, they’re a perfect fit.
One might wonder how the xx, who write mostly love songs with only 3 musicians, would adjust to a large headlining slot at a sizable festival like Shaky Knees. The answer to that question was through tons of bass. Even some of the smallest, most intimate xx tracks found themselves drenched in low-end from bassist Ollie and DJ Jamie. This made the xx’s set an energetic end to day 2, as the band appears more and more comfortable with their immense popularity, providing a set filled with favorites and standout moments. Despite the bass, one of the set’s highlights was Romy’s “Performance”, which she performed by herself with a guitar. In the midst of bassy hip-hop influenced tunes, the track worked as a magnificent breath of nuance and simplicity. The moment the crowd responded too most powerfully however was Jamie xx’s solo track “Loud Places” adapted for the xx proper. Filled with bursts of color, it’s one of the strongest songs in the band’s catalog and the subsequent interlude featured Jamie xx mixing live into standout I See You track “On Hold.” For many that think Jamie xx’s output is at the same level or even surpasses the xx’s work, it was a moment of glee to cap off a long day of music.
Run River North
I spent my day at the Ponce de Leon stage, and the first act I caught was Run River North. Though new to the festival scene, the Korean-American indie folk band put on a good show. The smaller stage was conducive to a much more personal connection between band and audience, and the lead singer, Alex Hwang, exchanged banter with audience members throughout their set, resulting in a relaxed, pleasant atmosphere. Hwang was funny, and would pause every few songs to “self-promote” as a popular Asian actor or fictional character and “my side band” (As in, “I’m that Asian dude on the Walking Dead and this is my side project”). Overall, they were a hit with the audience, who sang along enthusiastically to their most popular hit, “Run or Hide”. I expect they’ll start to appear in more festival line-ups in the future, and if so, I’d recommend giving them a listen.
Mondo Cozmo followed Run River North’s set. Fortunately, while it rained during the 45 minute intermission between sets, it cleared up just in time for them to take the stage at 4:15pm as planned. However, it took a few minutes for the soaked audience to fully warm up to the band, but once they recovered from the brief downpour, things picked up for them. They played multiple crowd favorites, including a cover of the Rolling Stones’ “Bittersweet Symphony,” and ended with their number one single, “Shine,” for which lead singer Josh Ostrander channeled Bob Dylan with his vocals.
The Durham, North Carolina duo provided a set of their jittery electro pop. Amelia Meath sported a ‘No Nukes’ t-shirt and platform shoes that added 5 to 6 inches to her height. Despite the duos small set up on the sizable Peachtree stage, Sylvan Esso didn’t seem too small. Sylvan Esso’s most popular songs, such as “Coffee” and “Radio,” dwarf the rest of their discography, based on how familiar those songs were with the audience. This isn’t necessarily bad, these songs are undeniably catchy and strong in their own right. However you could tell the crowd was way more engaged with the hits than some of the newer, less familiar material.
Fantastic Negrito is, above all, a storyteller and uses his music as a vehicle for the story he seeks to tell. And boy, does he have a story. I’d done some reading up on him before seeing his set on Saturday, and found that he’s gone through a lot— from nearly dying at the hands of a masked gunman in Oakland to a failed million dollar record deal to nearly dying once more after a car accident that landed him in a coma and mutilated his playing hand. Now back into making music, his songs draw heavily from the blues, and, as Fantastic Negrito puts it himself have “zero concern for ‘pop’ anything”.
Lewis Del Mar
I had never heard of or from Lewis Del Mar before Saturday, but was not disappointed. First off, it should be noted that they have plenty of fans. Plenty of very devoted fans. Having camped out front and center all day, I was able to secure a prime location, but had to fight very hard to keep it once the more enthusiastic Del Mar devotees pushed forward, itching to get as close to their idols— best friends Danny Miller (lead vocals and guitar) and Max Harwood (drums)—as possible.
I listened to Phoenix throughout my late middle school and early high school years, so my nostalgic side was very excited to see them live. Not even the thirty minute delay could dampen my enthusiasm as the stagehands worked to set up the gigantic mirror that was angled downwards towards the stage, giving the audience a bird’s eye view of the entire stage. The payoff was worth it, though, because the visual effects were otherworldly— literally. Images were projected onto the stage throughout the set, and at one point lead singer Thomas Mars laid out on his back as a night sky was projected all around him, giving him the appearance of floating among the stars.
I’d heard their latest single, “J-Boy” before that weekend, and was happy to hear even more new material. They opened with “Ti Amo,” and played two new songs during their encore performance. I was also pleased that in spite of the lost 30 minutes, I walked away from the performance having heard everything I was hoping to hear (and with the knowledge that I’d helped lift Mars as he crowd-surfed at the very end).
I kicked off Shaky’s last day at the Piedmont stage with the Bloomington-based psych-pop group, Hoops. With a 12:30pm start time, I wasn’t expecting the crowd to be giant, but they really managed to pull a decent-sized (and enthusiastic) audience. The performance itself featured plenty of new material off their recent LP, Routines. The overall vibe of the set was very chill, and the guys seemed just as relaxed up on the festival stage as they would be in a much smaller setting. Drew Auscherman often paused between songs to sip his Lime-arita (courtesy of the band members of Whitney, who Hoops toured with last fall and “always make us chug something on stage.” Various Whitney members continued to make cameos throughout Hoops’ set to distribute more Lime-a-ritas and, at one point, drummer Julien Ehrlich briefly joined the band on the bongos), thank the audience, and enthuse about his love of playing the guitar (“Who knew?”), and spent his time on stage doing what he loves most— playing the guitar with his best friends.
The cool sound of dreamy guitars and the silvery keyboard was a perfect way to start the sunny day, and the band’s stage presence was a nice reminder of just why everyone was there at Shaky Knees in the first place: to fully appreciate every aspect of the the music making process, from its creation to its consumption.
The prospect of seeing Whitney was one of the reasons I applied for my festival pass in the first place, so needless to say my expectations were high going into their set on Sunday. I’m beyond happy to report that it both met and exceeded said expectations. Whitney is the combined effort of former Smith Westerns members Julien Ehrlich and Max Kakacek. Though Ehrlich’s falsetto has been called Muppet-y by some, no one was complaining as he took the stage and opened with “Dave’s Song.” The set went smoothly,with the exception of some last minute shuffling of the setlist. Cloud Nothings was playing loudly not too far away, and instead of jumping right into the quieter “Polly” they decided to lead into it with the instrumental “Red Moon” rather than compete with the other band. This choice was fine by me, considering the two songs are arranged in that order on Light Upon the Lake. Though I personally didn’t think the competing music was too distracting (granted, I was in the very middle of the second row) once Cloud Nothings’ set finished a few minutes later, you could tell they all felt much better about it.There wasn’t much discussion between songs, with the exception of Elrich pausing to ask the audience if they knew of “those wild, Russian cyberpunk kids with the dancing” and explained that he and bassist Josiah Marshall had discussed previously that they would either try to dance like them or would make out during their set. They opted for the later in the middle of their cover of NRBQ’s “Magnet”.
Just as Whitney jumped on and off stage during Hoops’ set, “our boys from Hoops” returned the favor during Whitney’s, joining them to sing backup on “Golden Days,” before disappearing once more as Whitney debuted a work-in-progress song (tentatively) titled “Rolling Blackout.”
Whitney’s about to head off on a European tour, but you can bet I’m catching their show next time they’re down in Georgia.
Admittedly, I don’t know much by Bleachers beyond “I Wanna Get Better,” and got excited that I recognized another song of theirs until it fully registered that they were covering Fleetwood Mac’s “Go Your Own Way.” Despite my lack of knowledge of the majority of their discography, however, I still had a really great time and went back and added a few songs to my Spotify summer playlist after the set was through. Their 80’s-inspired pop rock was fun to dance to (especially in the shade of the Piedmont stage), even if it wasn’t something that I listen to on a day-to-day basis. The lead singer, Jack Antonoff, was charismatic and engaged with the audience throughout the set, and wasn’t fazed even after they were delayed by 15 minutes due to technical difficulties. The band adapted by opening with “Like a River Runs,” and made do with only guitar and saxophone as they were the only instruments with sound at the time.
Third Eye Blind
When I named some bands to my father before departing for the festival, Third Eye Blind was the only band he recognized. So I was not surprised by the large turnout based on their wide appeal and name recognition for their set on Sunday afternoon. I am guilty of being familiar with the song’s themselves, but not knowing that they were Third Eye Blind songs. Lead singer, Stephan Jenkins wore a long sleeved Thrasher shirt, baggy black shorts, and huge designer high top sneakers during their set. In fact every member of the band was dressed in all black, which I imagine was a deliberate, yet unusual, choice for the pop rock band. Jenkins provided a lot of engaging and semi-inspirational banter throughout the set. Another memorable aspect was when they briefly performed the chorus of Icona Pop’s 2012 hit “I Love It”. 3EB closed with “Semi-Charmed Life” which sent the crowd into a communal sing along. Some of my friends said they’ve unintentionally seen Third Eye Blind five times at festivals previously. The band appeared at many festivals last year, but Shaky Knees will be their only festival in 2017.
Ryan Adam’s Sunday night set was mostly what one would expect. Hits like “Come Pick Me Up” and “New York, New York” that the singer is famous for made their festival returns (Adams played both in 2014 at the same festival), but the set maintained interest through Adams’s charm and a sense of spontaneity that permeated the hour-long performance. During highlight “Magnolia Mountain,” a broken string interrupted a long guitar solo, so much so that Adams went back and played the solo again after the song’s conclusion to much laughter and smiles from the crowd. Although Adams released a new record this year entitled Prisoner, songs mostly came from Adams’s earlier work. Prisoner is a fairly dour divorce record, so this decision was welcome, but even some of those tracks, like the Springsteen-influenced “Outbound Train” had a sense of freshness through Adams’ touring band, giving acoustic songs a much needed punch of festival-fueled energy.
Hamilton Leithauser’s year of success continued with a sizable and impressive hour long set on Sunday afternoon. Since the Walkmen’s hiatus, Leithauser has been able to distinguish himself from that group enough now that many in the crowd probably knew his work through his recent singles like “In a Black Out” rather than the older Walkmen fans who could remember just how ubiquitous “The Rat” was back in the day. Backed by a sizable band, Leithauser relied mostly on his work with Rostam for the setlist, and played no Walkmen tracks. For the crowd, that seemed to matter little, as his 2 solo records feature enough energetic indie pop to keep any reasonable festical-goer amused through the scorching afternoon.