- by Mark Moody Rating: Release Date: Label:
All Photo Credits: Christa Joyner Moody
This was my first year attending Atlanta’s Shaky Knees fest which takes place in Central Park - less than a mile from our hotel. Although my first year here, I’ve been to the last four Austin City Limits’ festivals and it’s apparent from the graphic design on down that it’s run by the same folks from C3 Presents. C3 has the festival business down to a science and that was certainly the case here at Shaky Knees as well. The approach is a bit different than ACL in that Shaky Knees focuses strictly on the Indie/Rock fan, while companion festival Shaky Beats the following weekend caters to the EDM fan (though it looked like a few of their rave wear crowd showed up early). Note: Going back to 2015 there was also a country focused Shaky Boots festival, but it would be hard to navigate the hills here in your Justin Ropers and Wrangler jeans so it is no more. If the two surviving festivals were combined you would probably have enough for an ACL scaled event, but being the avid Indie fan this was perfect for us with four stages and two live at a time. Also to note if you plan to attend, get your wristbands mailed to you and linked to your credit card in advance. At least this year the Uber drop-off and the box office were nowhere near each other so we missed a band trying to navigate that and the credit card sign up. Setting that aside, the park is laid out perfectly with the two main stages near each other and the two smaller stages down a bend in the road. There is also a great mix of local and national vendors selling food and drink scattered around the park.
Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever
After sadly missing The War & Treaty the next targeted band was Australia’s Rolling Blackouts Coastal Fever playing an early set on the main stage. The band plays as a five piece and the three guitarists share lead vocal duties, sometimes in the same song. The most obvious touchpoint here are fellow Aussies The Go-Betweens and to get even more granular when they were at their tangled guitar best circa Liberty Belle and the Black Diamond Express. They opened with ‘Clean Slate’, an earlier song with plenty of edgy energy. With more of a fuzzy fur flying heft in a live setting it took on a bit of a Flying Nun lo-fi buzz as well. ‘Talking Straight’ from their upcoming debut LP showcased a third lead vocalist with the rest of the band pulling harmonies. Things sparkled up a bit for ‘Wither With You’ with all three leads singing in tandem and then giving way to some hushed “shoop, shoop” vocals. Another from their upcoming album, ‘An Airconditioned Man’, showed some more power and by the end of the set a three guitar squall of melody and noise ensued. The up and coming band has been signed to Sub Pop and their debut album is out next month (look for a review in the weeks ahead). One to follow!
Though with roots not too far away, this was Katie Crutchfield and company’s first trip to Shaky Knees. Playing one of the smaller and covered side stages, it gave the set more of a club feel than the cavernous main stages. I had seen the band last year and they definitely brought a bit more “festival” energy to this set. They led with the drony ‘Recite Remorse’ from last year’s excellent Out in the Storm, with the clipped bitterness in Crutchfield’s vocal making the break-up at the album’s core seem fresh. Sister Allison (pictured in ultra hip Bedouine t-shirt and impenetrable shades) moved to guitar for a revved up ‘Silver’. The pretty ‘Sparks Fly’ with a line about “seeing myself through my sister’s eyes” portrayed the importance these two talented siblings bring to each other’s music. The country tinged ‘8 Ball’ and angry sneer of ‘Never Been Wrong’ show the range and depth of last year’s album. The quieter turns of ‘Swan Dive’ and acoustic driven ‘A Little More’ were captivating as well. There was a good mid-day set crowd on hand (many multiples of last time I saw them) and they made the most of it and hopefully picked up a few more fans along the way. I’ve been following the sisters' different tracks for a while now and it’s great to see them having success while following their own muse.
Back over on the main stage, the Aussies continued to prevail with Courtney Barnett (photo on Gig Review main page) tearing through an hour long set powered by the angry energy of the upcoming Tell Me How You Really Feel album. Backed by a three piece band, including residual sea louse Katie Harkin, Barnett was for the most part the sole guitarist and her skill was on full display. Opening with her latest single ‘City Looks Pretty’, Barnett took the song down the path from the poppier intro to a protracted and crowd pleasing solo. The older ‘Small Poppies’ was also taken down a more indignant route with Barnett spitting out “an eye for an eye for an eye” with a surprising amount of angst and again letting her guitar seethe as much as her vocal. I’m in the midst of working on a review for her new album, but suffice it to say that ‘Nameless, Faceless’ is the most like her earlier carefree material. That contrasted sharply with the punk screamer of ‘I’m Not Your Mother, I’m Not Your Bitch’ where Barnett rages “put up or shut up” at the song’s furious peak. Though only a few releases into her career, Barnett already has a great resume of songs that is being added to. This was imminently clear when she played the string of ‘Pedestrian at Best’, ‘Avant Gardener’, ‘History Eraser’, ‘Elevator Operator’, and ‘Depreston’ back to back. All great tracks, but the first and last were stunners played live. She put in another new album track ‘Need a Little Time’ before closing with the “in case you forgot I have another great song” of ‘Nobody Really Cares If You Don’t Go to the Party’. I wasn’t necessarily planning on staying for the full set but having only seen her play with Kurt Vile before, which was a friendly affair, I wasn’t expecting her to bring so much fire and frankly had forgotten how many great songs she has already written.
One of my personal claims to fame is that I attended the Houston stop of the Talking Heads Stop Making Sense tour in lieu of going to my high school homecoming dance - good choice on my part! I’ve seen Byrne (pictured above and inset) one other time since in his "tropical" phase and he brought a great rhythmic set back then, but that’s been many moons ago as well. He’s one to never count out and with nothing but a plastic brain sitting on an otherwise empty table on a stage surrounded by a beaded curtain it was hard to imagine what might come next. In a bit of a nod to the set up for Stop Making Sense, Byrne dressed in a gray three piece suit and barefoot sat at the table alone and sang ‘Here’ while holding the prop brain and singing to it “alas poor Yorick” style. With no drum kit on stage or a single other thing after the table was removed, Byrne moved on to ‘Lazy’ (which reflects Remain in Light quite a bit) joined by a six person parade drum corps, unwired bass, keyboard, guitar players and back-up singers, putting nine performers on stage at that point. The full ensemble ended up being twelve performers, who without wires moved freely about the stage for the entire hour. The group rolled into ‘I Zimbra’ with the crowd going nuts. Performers moved in and out of the beaded curtains coming out with different instruments, including some crazy Rube Goldberg contraption with snares and cymbals, and every artist was in constant motion. Other Heads’ songs included ‘This Must Be the Place’ (sans lamp), ‘Slippery People’, ‘Burning Down the House’, and crowd favorite ‘Once in a Lifetime’. Highlights from Byrne’s new album included ‘Everybody’s Coming to My House’ and ‘I Dance Like This’ where all the band members laid on the ground like fallen soldiers as a lone keyboard player stepped among them. In spite of all the older songs, this was far from a nostalgia trip. Reinventing the songs to be played with drum line and mobile musicians proved fresh and including Janelle Monae’s ‘What You Talmbout’ showed current day relevance. Byrne was openly laughing between some songs which must have been self acknowledgment that he was nailing it on each song. Not sure how long he has been performing with this group or in front of what size crowds, but it was a spectacle to behold and is highly recommended if you can catch him in this set-up. Not sure what I was expecting, but this set exceeded what could have been imagined.
The reassembled Fleet Foxes put out an excellent album in last year’s Crack-Up, and this was my second time seeing them live this year. In spite of the mid-80’s temperatures, Robin Pecknold (pictured) and company took the stage in Pacific Northwest fall garb including Pecknold’s requisite woven beanie. Liberally including songs from all their releases, they opened with ‘Grown Ocean’. Playing an 8pm set just before the closer was a perfect slot and time of day for their intricate folk inspired songs. Playing the second largest stage with the viewing area running the length of a neighborhood street, the neighbors were out in their yards also enjoying the more laid back vibe of the set. As an inspired touch, the band brought out a local horn ensemble, The Westerlies, to join in on several songs. Fan favorite ‘White Winter Hymnal’ was played early as the second song. Mid-set highlights included ‘He Doesn’t Know Why’ and ‘Mykonos’, with band members lending beautiful harmonies behind Pecknold. The set closed with one of my favorites, ‘Helplessness Blues’, and then a brief encore with ‘Oliver James’. Pecknold is clearly giving it his all as he performs - barely opening his eyes and fully committed. My only gripe both at this show and the earlier one is that you are effectively getting note by note renditions of their album tracks recreated in a live setting. Not particularly exciting to watch, but great to listen to. Given the “heavy” lineup of the following day, I think I may have appreciated them a bit more if they had played on Saturday as foil to a harder line-up (though another band did play that role).
Well, what to say here. I reviewed White’s latest album a few months back and was kinder than most, but think it is fair to say that White is primarily resting on his laurels with regards to his own content and is just too far out there for most. There were certainly plenty of people on hand for his closing set, but it must be for White Stripes loyalists and guitar histrionic fans and not much else. Unlike Byrne who is still delivering on the creative front, White feels as if he is dialing it in. As other enigmatic artists will do, White was basically obscured in a fog of smoke and blue light and the side screens only occasionally flashed scrambled images of him. He opened with ‘Over and Over and Over’ one of his better recent songs and ‘Corporation’ followed not long after. The front end of the set did sprinkle in a few White Stripes’ songs and the back of his setlist was loaded with them. He played a solid take on ‘Lazeretto’, but maybe to his core fan’s delight spent a lot of time on self-indulgent soloing and his asides to the audience were hard to comprehend. Before playing new album lowlight ‘Why Walk a Dog?’, White inexplicably and repeatedly screamed out to the audience “Does the ocean need sand?” for no discernible reason I could figure out. We made it for about ten songs before heading for the exit. It does look like the setlist got stronger towards the end, and he was joined by label mate Lillie Mae for a few songs later on, but I’d seen enough of the bombast. My rating is based on the first half of the set, for those who remained I hope the set miraculously transformed.