- by Mark Moody Rating: Release Date: Label:
All photo credits: Christa Joyner Moody
Day Three of Shaky Knees broke the coolest weather-wise and with another loaded line-up on tap. I made quick reference to it before, but similar to the larger scaled Austin City Limits festival that I’ve made the past four years, Shaky Knees is a very user friendly festival and full of hard-working volunteers, staff, and laid-back festival goers. With the credit card linked wristbands and numerous vendor areas (including free cold water refill stations), you hardly have to take a break from the music unless you want to. A special shout out to my ex-pat friends at the Tito’s Vodka airstream trailer set-up. You are much cooler than your next door neighbors that thought it was okay to play “beach” music while artists were playing on the main stage across the park. There are also lots of non-food/drink vendors either promoting “indie-friendly” causes (thanks Human Rights folks for the stickers) and even an opportunity to get a B-12 shot - more on that later. Given three amazing days of late Spring weather and a stacked list of bands, Shaky Knees is a great festival to seek out. As deep as any lineup card I’ve seen this year, while also being easy to navigate being an added bonus. Being adjacent to a major city also makes it easy to get around and there were plenty of affordable nearby hotel options too. It would be hard to come up with a reason not to attend, so make sure you check it out in 2019! But on to the final day's music...
If they wouldn’t have mentioned it, you would have never known that Toronto-based Alvvays (pictured on Gig Review main page) had a van breakdown and early morning scramble to the airport in order to make their mid-day set. I primarily say that as Molly Rankin, dressed impeccably in a swimming pool water blue business ensemble, looked not the least bit flustered. And speaking of business, Rankin and her band quickly got down to it opening with ‘Hey’ from last year’s Antisocialites. It was apparent early on that Rankin has great vocal command and power to carry over the big early crowd assembled at the main stage. ‘Adult Diversion’ from their debut with its layered keyboards and crunchy guitar allowed the band to show more strength behind Rankin’s own power. The faster and energetic ‘Lollipop (Ode to Jim)’, which I thought would have been a bigger radio hit with it’s staccato rhythm, sounded great live as well. Of their hits though, both ‘Plimsoll Punks’ and ‘Archie, Marry Me’ sounded great with the latter getting the crowd into full song. Showing her full range, the unadorned beginning of ‘Forget About Life’ gave Rankin a chance to show her range and that she can go from power to purity with no problem. Rankin had no issue contending with the noisier moments supplied by fully engaged guitarist Alec O’Hanley and keyboardist Kerri MacLellan also stood out supplying a variety of shadings. All the while the rhythm section of Brian Murphy and Sheridan Riley powered the set of power pop ably along. Bringing the cool Canadian breeze with them, Alvvays put on a set of songs as natty as Rankin’s fashion sense. The band even garnered kudos from Philly punk band The Menzingers later in the day. Not a very punk or Philly thing of them to do, but very well deserved.
The band’s name is basically the alter ego of band leader Ben Schneider who plays the role of songwriter, singer, and guitar player. I saw them at a festival many years ago and with four years between albums wasn’t even sure if Schneider was still in the music game any longer. No doubt Schneider has penned some monster hits including ‘Ends of the Earth’ (used in my daughter’s graduation video by the way), ‘The Night We Met’, and ‘Time to Run’ among them. But since we are talking about a live performance, and though everything was technically excellent, he’s just not that engaging to watch. The most exciting thing to happen, but it happened many times, was Schneider losing his hat. There was some differentiation in sound with the heftier ‘Never Ever’ and the duet with his keyboardist on ‘Wait by the River’ was a clear standout. Although Schneider strikes gold from time to time on his songs that deal with earthly wanderings and wonderings, at the end of the day his songs’ greatest strength are also their greatest weakness: there is nothing at all offensive about them.
Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats
If a balm for boredom was needed, Mr. Rateliff (pictured above) was there to administer it! Playing on the second largest stage it was squeezing room only to even get a spot anywhere on the field even before the music started. With a crack seven piece band, including a three man horn section, and inspired by the early Americana flavorings of The Band and swampy gospel/soul it was easy to get swept up in Rateliff’s full on revival. He eased into things with ‘Shoe Boot’ off his recently released Tearing at the Seams album. But by the next song he and the band were full bore into party mode with ‘The Shape I’m In’ sounding boogie of ‘Be There’. The gutbucket sound and growl of ‘Look It Here’ made it obvious that Rateliff is able to vary his approach to match any American influenced music circa 1940 to 1970 with ease. His band was at a full rolling boil only five songs in with ‘Coolin’ Out’, but shortly thereafter showed they could cool it down, as well as out, on the scruffy soul of ‘Wasting Time’ from his debut with the band from a few years back. It’s not often that an artist totally reinvents themselves, but you could be forgiven for not seeing where Rateliff would end up from a few more standard singer/songwriter solo albums. He’s clearly found his comfort zone as band leader and with the crowd erupting when the group launched into ‘I Need Never Get Old’ why not go with it. Rateliff was also one of the few performers I watched who took a moment to speak out about gun violence in the U.S. before playing the breezy protest of ‘Say It Louder’. I had to move along before he got to his biggest hit, ’S.O.B.’, but pushing my way through the crowd while Rateliff soulfully growled along with his horn section on ‘Hey Mama’ was a perfectly fine way to remember his uplifting and wide ranging performance.
If you were looking for a variety of options in musical approaches, Sunday was your day. Going from soulful Americana to old school punk may seem a bit of a transition, but it seemed perfectly natural. In spite of the Philly based band’s songs of self loathing with titles like ‘I Don’t Want to Be an Asshole Anymore’ and ‘In Remission’ it was clear they were here to party for an hour straight. With the lead singers taking turns on lead vocals and backing each other up, they sounded most like the early Clash, just more personal than political. They clearly have an inability to write anything other than songs full of simple chorded hooks and sing along choruses. Greg Barnett looks like he would blend in at any neighborhood cook-out and for all I know I could have been standing shoulder to shoulder with him at the Alvvays show they singled out. On the other hand, Tom May looks more the part with shaved pate and mirrored sunglasses and a bit more of an unhinged stage presence. But they both can rip into a song more than ably with Eric Keen and Joe Godino propelling things along. May told a hilarious, if possibly a bit exaggerated, story about getting a B-12 shot to the neck earlier in the day and feeling great. Those were in fact being offered up, but May didn’t seem the type to need the boost. The sort of guy that drinks a Red Bull to calm down. I hadn’t heard the band previously, but they had plenty of fans swarming the smallest stage of the festival and singing along to ‘Tellin’ Lies’, ‘Midwestern States’, and the already mentioned ‘Asshole’. They also had a well behaved (compared to Parquet Courts’ of Day 2) mosh pit that served as base layer for a bit of good natured crowd surfing as well. A Hell of a fun band to watch for an hour and seemed they were having just as much fun as the crowd, even if their songs would lead you to believe they hate themselves.
I’ve been following Matt Berninger and brothers Dessner and Devendorf since the days of Alligator and Boxer, which albums if anything have just improved with age. But I was also a big fan of last year’s Sleep Well Beast (maybe minus a few songs). Amazingly, given my grueling concert going schedule (ha ha), I have never seen them live before. They were definitely high up on my list of band’s to catch, so Shaky Knees afforded a great opportunity to catch them as final night closer. Having the unenviable slot of playing right after Jack Black’s Tenacious D (who was apparently on everyone’s must see list but mine) across the park, it took a while for the crowd to filter in and I had no problem getting about five rows deep. Though I’ve seen the trick before, the band was filmed live walking across the field backstage, up the stairs and on to the stage which drove everyone crazy with anticipation and release. Starting with the tick-tock sonar pings of ‘Nobody Else Will Be There’, the band proved themselves as velvety cool as the late Spring night. Moving to the more amped up ‘The System Only Dreams in Total Darkness’ the Dessner brothers added layers of distorted guitars while the Devendorf’s were aided by an additional drummer and sometimes a third. Further upping the quotient a trumpet and trombone player added contorted shadings in many spots to fill out their sound.
Even though many of the band’s songs are as atmospheric as they are quietly propulsive, Berninger definitely knows how to work the crowd and was fully wrapped up in the performance. Whether contorting through the glorious ‘Bloodbuzz, Ohio’ (complete with a seizure inducing onslaught of strobes and sweeping lights) or slowly intoning Boxer’s softest tracks the band’s fans hung on every word. The simplest lines like ‘Slow Show’’s “standing at the punch table, swallowing punch” profoundly pierced the air. Contrastingly, ’Conversation 16’ and ‘Day I Die’ with its air raid siren beginning were given particularly brutal renditions. The version of ‘Fake Empire’ going from simple piano and voice to being given an assist at the end by the brass was another highlight. While the ferocity of Berninger tearing through the now ironic ‘Mr. November’ and walking through the crowd screaming the chorus was particularly powerful. The band ended the set with a sing-along acoustic ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks’ letting the crowd carry the song into the night. Given their deep catalog and decades of experience, The National are operating at the height of their powers and made the perfect closer for a loaded three day lineup. Can't wait to get back for next year's event!